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COVID could create crisis in Alex Murdaugh murder trial

Two jurors in the double murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh have COVID, leaving the future of the proceedings in some doubt as they enter their fourth week on Monday.
FBI special agent Matthew Wilde takes the stand during Alex Murdaugh's double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Walterboro, S.C. Murdaugh is standing trial on two counts of murder in the shootings of his wife and son at their Colleton County home and hunting lodge on June 7, 2021. (Joshua Boucher/The State via AP, Pool)

Two jurors in the double murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh have COVID, leaving the future of the proceedings in some doubt as they enter their fourth week on Monday.

Judge Clifton Newman decided keep the trial going in the packed Colleton County courtroom after the remaining 10 jurors and five alternates tested negative. They will be tested again on Wednesday. The clerk of court also tested positive for the virus.

Newman said jurors agreed to wear masks. He rejected suggestions from both the defense and prosecutors to delay the trial until that second round of tests Wednesday, reduce the over 200 people allowed to attend the trial each day or order everyone in the courtroom to wear masks other than testifying witnesses and questioning attorneys.

“At the moment, we are going to encourage everyone here to mask up for your own protection as well as the protection of these proceedings and each other,” Newman said.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murdering his wife, 52-year-old Maggie, and their 22-year-old son Paul at the family's Colleton County home on June 7, 2021.

Monday marked the 13th day of testimony with prosecutors still presenting their case.

State Law Enforcement Division agent Sara Zapata testified that DNA from all three Murdaughs were found on the shirt and shorts Alex Murdaugh was wearing when he found the bodies.

A preliminary test also detected blood on Murdaugh's shirt, but a later test couldn't confirm it was human blood. Zapata said it appears other crime scene technicians performed a test that can damage a blood sample.

DNA tests didn’t find genetic material from anyone tested on a blue raincoat found at the house of Alex Murdaugh's mother, Zapata said. Earlier testimony said the inside lining of the coat had a large amount of gunshot residue inside.

DNA from a number of people who volunteered samples — other workers on the Murdaugh property, the family of a teen killed in a crash by a boat driven by Paul Murdaugh and other family members of Alex Murdaugh — was not found on items from the crime scene, Zapata said.

)Defense attorneys said the DNA findings were not unusual considering the Murdaughs lived together and it was Alex who found the bodies of his wife and Paul.

Also Monday, prosecutors told the judge that they received a large amount of data from General Motors regarding the computer in the SUV that Alex Murdaugh drove on the night of the killings. The judge agreed to give the defense time to review it before prosecutors can call witnesses to testify about it.

Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said a brief examination of the data appears to support the version of events already presented in the trial about Murdaugh driving to visit his ailing mother and then returning and discovering the bodies.

“It’s amazing what they capture. It’s scary. They know everything about how you’re operating the vehicle — speed, where you are, all those things," Harpootlian said. “”The car's functions, is the door locked? Unlocked? Is it moving? In gear?"

The trial, which started with six alternate jurors, is now down to three after the positive COVID tests.

“My only concern is we don’t create train wreck with this jury," said Harpootlian, who immediately began wearing a mask.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters said he agreed with the defense that delaying the trial for a few days to make sure COVID isn't spreading is much better than losing so many jurors there has to be a mistrial and three weeks of work is gone. He also suggested limiting the number of people inside the large, century-old courtroom. The trial is being livestreamed and shown on television.

“A little less numbers might be warranted. None of us want to limit anything, but we're in different paradigm. Both of us have a concern about getting this thing to the end without COVID causing it to fall apart," Waters said.

The judge said he would keep all options in mind, but for now the trial will continue without any changes.

“We just have to take precautions as we all do as we navigate through life during this period of time,” Newman said.

Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press