The sprawling estate is as gorgeous as it is private, with its fishing pond, broad farmland, and four-bedroom mansion hidden between woods and a winding path.
On Wednesday, jurors deliberating the fate of Alex Murdaugh, the prominent South Carolina lawyer accused of murdering his wife and son, will go beyond the property’s metal gate and “no trespassing” sign to see where the double murder occurred, one of the final stages of the trial before reaching a verdict.
As more than 75 witnesses took the stand over the course of nearly five weeks, testimony finished on Tuesday. Jurors have heard testimony about Mr. Murdaugh, 54, his family’s legal clout in the area, and the tragic shootings in June 2021 that killed his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and their younger son, Paul Murdaugh, 22. Authorities claim Mr. Murdaugh committed the crime in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his long-running misappropriation of millions of dollars.
The jury visit was to be followed by closing statements from the prosecution and defense, following which the 12 jurors would begin deliberations.
Jurors seldom visit crime scenes, and experts say pulling them out of the carefully controlled courtroom atmosphere and into the real world might pose substantial hazards for both the prosecution and defense.
“There are a lot of problems with this,” said Nancy S. Marder, a law professor and jury specialist at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who recalls sitting at a Starbucks in Los Angeles when an O.J. Simpson trial bus went by on their visit to the murder site.
Lawyers, for example, are not permitted to point things out or talk with jurors, according to experts. “You never know what jurors will see when they arrive,” Ms. Marder added. “They may concentrate on totally different topics.”
However, jury visits can also help jurors visualize a scene, and they have been held in several high-profile cases, including the sentencing trial of the Parkland, Fla., school shooter; the trial of a Louisville, Ky., police officer charged in connection with the fatal Breonna Taylor raid; and, perhaps most famously, the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles.
Melody Vanoy was one of the jurors that visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which had been virtually abandoned since 14 students and three workers were slain there in 2018.
Ms. Vanoy described the visit as upsetting but necessary as she weighed whether to sentence the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, to life in prison or death. (She was one of a small number of jurors who voted for the former.)
“Does it hurt? “Unquestionably,” said Ms. Vanoy, a vice president of diversity and inclusion for a healthcare organization. “Yet, I believe that going was beneficial since it brought the case to life.”
Jurors are often not permitted to discuss the case with one another until deliberations begin, and Ms. Vanoy described it as an unusual experience to go through and comprehend such a horrible scenario without communicating with her colleagues.
“You cannot naturally digest your feelings at the moment,” she remarked. “Your instinct tells you, ‘Oh my Goodness, did you see X?'” But you won’t be able to. It was quite silent.”
Ms. Vanoy said that the visit was beneficial in comprehending the physical distance between areas in the school that were mentioned at the trial.
Mr. Murdaugh confirmed on the witness stand last week that he was with his wife and son in the dog kennels where the homicides happened in the minutes before the deaths, but he claimed he drove a golf cart back to the main home, approximately 500 yards away, before the gunshots.
Mr. Murdaugh’s attorneys have obtained testimony indicating he would not have been able to hear gunfire from inside the home. Mr. Murdaugh then left the home to see his mother, which the prosecution has characterized as a premeditated attempt to establish an alibi.
Jury visits, according to Valerie Hans, a law professor and jury expert at Cornell University, can help to humanize defendants or show a different side to them, such as when jurors in the O.J. Simpson case were allowed to see a trophy room in his house where the former N.F.L. football star kept his accolades. Bringing jurors to a huge home like Mr. Murdaugh’s, she warned, may lead to hatred for his riches and position, which prosecutors claim helped him conceal embezzlement from clients and law partners.
“It’s a risk,” Ms. Hans said. “It’s another approach to humanize the person by demonstrating that this is the setting in which they lived. Yet he was also a rich guy, therefore there is a question mark.”
One of Mr. Murdaugh’s attorneys, Dick Harpootlian, requested the visit because he wanted jurors to observe the distance between key geographical sites cited in the case and the size of a tiny feed room where Paul Murdaugh was discovered dead.
“You really can’t grasp the spatial challenges until you see them,” he stated in court.
The lead prosecutor, Creighton Waters, objected to the motion, citing changes to the property in the 20 months following the crime, such as trees between the kennels and the main house that are “markedly higher and thicker” than in the past.
Judge Clifton Newman agreed to the visit and stated he would accompany the attorneys. Despite the objections of reporters, he banned media and the general public from seeing the visit, instead allowing three journalists to view the situation momentarily after the jurors had left.
Despite the fact that most of the property is concealed from the road, it was evident this week that it had altered in the period since the crime, even if no one had lived there. The previously well-worn roadway is now virtually concealed by overgrown grass, in addition to the tree growth.
Mr. Harpootlian requested that the court order the police to protect the crime site for the visit, claiming that hundreds of individuals had attempted to trespass on the property throughout the trial, with some attempting to snap photographs near the murder scene.
Stew Mathews, a Cincinnati-based defense attorney, said he demands jury visits in almost every important case he takes on. He did so last year when he successfully defended Brett Hankison, the former police officer who was found not guilty of endangering Breonna Taylor’s neighbors during a tragic police search of her residence.
Mr. Mathews said that, although he could not be certain, he believed the jury visit, in that case, helped jurors appreciate the situation and, maybe, the defense claim that Mr. Hankison was unaware there was another apartment next to Ms. Taylor’s.
“We have schematics and images as proof,” Mr. Hankison said. “But, none of it compares to really being out there and viewing 360-degree, live views.”
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