Alex Murdaugh‘s double murder trial is braced for fireworks this morning as the defense prepares to grill a lawyer over $1,000 he paid to another prosecution witness.
Courtroom proceedings were sensationally interrupted late Thursday when Murdaugh’s defense demanded that the judge strike out the evidence of Mark Tinsley, who was suing Murdaugh and his son Paul at the time of the murders for a boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach.
Tinsley is alleged to have made a $1,000 donation to a GoFundMe page for Shelly Smith, Murdaugh’s mother’s caregiver, which was set up to ‘reward her bravery’ after her emotional testimony about seeing the alleged killer on the night of the murders.
Judge Clifton Newman refused to strike out Tinsley’s testimony, which centers around Murdaugh’s attempts to claim he was broke in the wake of his son’s boat wreck, and instead told the defense the donation ‘will make good fodder for cross examination’.
Defense attorney Phillip Barber (right) interrupted proceedings late Thursday to demand that the testimony of Mark Tinsley (left) be struck from the record
At the time of Maggie and Paul’s deaths , Murdaugh and his son were facing a civil suit over the boat wreck that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in February, 2019. Murdaugh told cops Paul and Maggie had been killed in revenge for the accident
The revelation came after a week of high drama in the trial where Murdaugh stands accused of murdering his wife Maggie, 52, and younger son Paul, 22 at their 1,700-acre estate in Islandton, South Carolina, on June 7, 2021.
The courtroom was evacuated Wednesday after a bomb threat was made on the judge’s chambers and Buster Murdaugh was booted to the back of court after allegedly giving the middle finger to Tinsley during his evidence on Monday.
Prosecutors said yesterday they expect to wrap up their case by next Wednesday.
Tinsley’s evidence is about Murdaugh’s financial crimes, which the State claims motivated the disgraced legal scion to kill his wife and son. He had racked up millions in debt and ‘the walls were closing in’.
Three days before the murders, Murdaugh was due to face a hearing for disclosure of his finances after telling Tinsley he was broke and had no money for Mallory’s family. The 19-year-old girl was killed in a boat crash while Paul was driving under the influence in February, 2019.
Defense attorney Phillip Barber interrupted proceedings yesterday to demand his testimony be struck from the record over the $1,000 donation to Smith.
Smith’s daughter, Rachelle Buckner, set up the page to ‘reward her mother’s bravery’ after she told the court she saw Murdaugh at his mother’s house on the night of the murders for 20 minutes – contradicting his claim he was there for 40 minutes.
‘He made a financial payment to a witness in the middle of a trial, that he has a financial interest in the outcome of,’ Barber told the judge, adding that Smith was still under subpoena.
But Judge Newman refused to strike out Tinsley’s evidence after the defense failed to explain how the payment was improper.
The GoFundMe has so has so far raised more than $24,000, soaring past its target of $20,000.
Murdaugh stands accused of murdering his wife Maggie, 52, and younger son Paul, 22 at their estate in Islandton, South Carolina, on June 7, 2021. Murdaugh is pictured with Maggie and Paul and their elder son Buster (right)
Smith’s daughter, Rachelle Buckner, set up the page to ‘reward her mother’s bravery’ following emotional testimony (Smith pictured on Monday) seeing Murdaugh on the night of the murders that poked holes in his alibi
Judge Clifton Newman appeared stunned by the intervention as he was told about the donation by the defense who said there was no precedent for such a payment
The GoFundMe page for Smith has so has so far raised more than $24,000, soaring past its target of $20,000
Barber stated that Tinsley had admitted making the donation to South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Tinsley told the court during his testimony that Murdaugh tried to ‘intimidate and bully’ him because he was suing him over his son Paul’s drunken boat crash.
That evidence allegedly infuriated Alex’s son Buster so much he made an obscene gesture and was moved to the back of the courtroom as a result.
Legal experts earlier warned that the GoFundMe page would invite problems for the prosecution.
Former prosecutor Lori Murray told DailyMail.com: ‘It clearly doesn’t look good.’
‘It looks especially suspect because the first donation was made within an hour of the page being set up,’ she added.
Murray was speaking before it was alleged that the donation had come from Tinsley.
However, Murray said she did not believe there was anything sinister about the payment. Murdaugh’s double-murder trial is gripping the public and many people have expressed sympathy for Smith online following her emotional testimony.
Buster’s alleged obscene gesture may have even been caught on camera, with the legal heir seen biting on his middle finger while Mark Tinsley, the attorney for Mallory Beach’s family, was giving evidence on Monday
Buster Murdaugh is seen on Thursday sitting a few rows further back than usual after he was reportedly warned over allegedly making an obscene gesture at a witness earlier in the week
‘I just don’t think that’s the case right now, there’s a lot of people feeling sorry for her on social media,’ Murray said.
Smith wept on Monday as she told jurors how Murdaugh had visited his mother’s home on the night of the murders for around 20 minutes.
A few days later he instructed her to tell cops he had been there for 40 minutes.
Smith told jurors this made her so ‘nervous’ she called her police officer brother to tell him about the conversation.
Prosecutors say Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were shot dead shortly after 8.49pm and that Murdaugh drove to his mother’s home at 9.06pm in order to ‘manufacture an alibi.’
Former prosecutor Lori Murray told DailyMail.com ‘it clearly doesn’t look good’
Data from his Chevrolet Suburban shows the car was parked for 21 minutes around the time Smith said he came to visit his mother.
Elsewhere, Smith’s evidence appeared more beneficial for Murdaugh’s defense.
She testified she saw Murdaugh holding a blue tarp when he visited the home again a few days after the killings.
The prosecution claim this was a blue raincoat that was covered in gun residue, but under cross-examination, Smith said what she saw was a blue tarp.
Murray said she does not think it would be in either the prosecution or defense’s interests to recall Smith as a witness and the idea that either side would pay her for her contradictory and confusing evidence seems unlikely.
However, Elizabeth Riley, a trial lawyer with 35 years’ experience, said that if the State finds out about the page they will swiftly move to shut it down.
‘This is a really bad idea. This witness is now receiving something of value for her testimony. If the prosecutor’s office knows about this they’ll shut it down. Defense could call the daughter as a witness to establish that Smith is profiting, during the trial, from her testimony,’ Riley tweeted.
Another trial lawyer, Robert Rikard, tweeted: ‘She and the daughter are now fair game in the defense case and it won’t be pretty…shows bias, motive to embellish testimony, motive to testify a certain way for financial gain etc. Could get real ugly.’
Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law and a former prosecutor, said he has never seen a fundraiser for a traumatized witness but does not see anything improper as long as people understand what they are donating to.
‘I have never heard of such a thing but I don’t have any reason to believe it is improper,’ Shealy told the Post and Courier.
The fundraising page previously said: ‘As you all know my mother was the caretaker for Alex Murdaugh’s mom. She recently had to testify against him and it had brought much heartache and stress to her …
‘Since knowing she would have to testify she had gone through so much with the what-ifs, should I, and the I HAVE TO! I want to reward her for her bravery and her honesty as it was one of the hardest things she had to do. We want to show her that she is not alone and we stand behind her 100%!’
Murdaugh arrives at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, on February 9
Buster Murdaugh and his girlfriend, Brooklynn White, and Alex’s brother John Marvin Murdaugh (right) and sister Lynn (left) arrive at Colleton County Courthouse Thursday
Alex Murdaugh with his wife Maggie, eldest son Buster, right, and younger son Paul, left
Buckner said her mother had taken a leave of absence from her job because she worries that the media attention could distract the students at her place of work.
The description on the GoFundMe page has since been cut to just two lines. It states: ‘These are her children doing this for her!! She had no idea about this!!!’
Smith’s daughter has been contacted for comment.
Murdaugh, 54, is accused of shooting his wife and younger son Paul on the evening of June 7, 2021, at the family’s sprawling hunting lodge in Islandton, South Carolina.
The prosecution is still laying out its case in the trial that began three weeks ago.