The Murdaugh Trial and the Importance of Witness Testimony

The Murdaugh Trial and the Importance of Witness TestimonyRecently, accused killer Alex Murdaugh took the stand in his double-murder trial, and at the same time an unflattering Netflix docuseries about the murders and his own family hit the airwaves. Pundits and experts across the country considered this a risky move, especially considering Murdaugh immediately confessed to what felt like dozens of lies.

We thought this would make a good opportunity to discuss why witness testimony is so important to a criminal case, when that testimony can strengthen your case, when it can torpedo it, and how you can be your own best defense witness.

When Murdaugh took the stand

In the event you haven’t been following the case, Alex Murdaugh was accused of fatally shooting his wife Maggie and son Paul back in June 2021. He immediately denied all wrongdoing, claiming he was visiting his mother at the time of the slayings, discovering their bodies later that night. Per NBC News, “the slayings set off a bizarre chain of events that officials say included Murdaugh hiring a man to kill him so his older son could collect on his life insurance policy, and dozens of charges against Murdaugh accusing him of financial crimes.”

Then, when Murdaugh took the stand in his defense, he “immediately confessed to the jury that he had lied to law enforcement, his family and the world at large for 20 months, while denying that he was physically present at the scene of the double homicide of his wife and his son back in June 2021.” Further:

Murdaugh’s attorneys, during two days’ worth of direct examination and cross-examination, allowed him to freely admit that he also repeatedly lied to dozens of clients when he practiced law prior to being disbarred, as well as his law partners, from whom he is accused of stealing more than $9 million in diverted settlement funds. Over and over again, he acknowledged that he had represented these individuals in cases, often involving grievous personal injury or wrongful death, and that he would steal their settlement funds to pay for his lifestyle and drug addiction.

Was this the right choice, to put Murdaugh on the stand? This could likely go one of two ways. Murdaugh may have delivered the prosecution a slam dunk by getting up on the stand and freely admitting that he’s a liar and an admittedly bad person. Juries generally don’t want to clear the name of an unlikeable person, especially one who’s freely admitted that he’s lied and deceived nearly everyone involved in the investigation.

On the other hand, is it possible Murdaugh’s confessions could help his case? Although he admitted to all of these lies, he steadfastly denied murdering his wife and son. NBC notes that “By testifying in his own defense, he, not his counsel, has asked these jurors to agree with him that he may be a thief and a drug addict, but that he is not a murderer.”

On March 2, Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of murdering his wife and son, and was sentenced to two life terms in prison. Per NPR, Murdaugh “made the extraordinary decision to testify on his own behalf, saying that while he had lied to police, he didn’t shoot his wife and son.”

Why witnesses are vulnerable on the stand

Putting a witness on the stand, especially for the defense, is a tricky and complicated part of the trial. Both the defense attorney and witness must be thoroughly prepared. Courtroom Sciences Inc. (CSI) explains the importance of an effective witness:

If the witness is not behaving appropriately, either on video tape or in front of a jury, they’re going to lose all credibility. They have to maintain the professionalism, maintain their calm…Many witnesses go into fight or flight responses because they feel threatened by a plaintiff attorney and they’re either going to run and hide or they’re going to try to argue, and that’s exactly what the plaintiff attorney wants the witness to do because they’ll fully take advantage of them…If the witness is not prepared strategically on how to answer these questions when they’re attacked, there’s zero chance of success.

In fact, CSI reports that 95% of “damaging or ineffective testimony can be traced to two neuro-psychological errors” – cognitive processing and what’s called an “emotional-survival” response. For example, the trajectory of a case can be drastically affected by the poor performance of a witness during deposition or trial. If a witness experiences a fight-or-flight response, becomes angry, argumentative, dismissive, condescending, or displays negative body language, it could harm their credibility and lead to a negative perception by the jury, ultimately resulting in an unfavorable outcome.

How our Killeen attorneys can help

Preparing a witness for the stand is an important part of our job. Here are some ways we can help prepare you:

  • Educate you about the legal process. We’ll explain what to expect during the trial, including the format of the trial, your role as a witness, and the potential consequences of your testimony.
  • Review the facts of the case. We’ll review the facts of the case to ensure you have a clear understanding of the events that took place and your role in them.
  • Practice questioning. Our lawyers will conduct mock questioning sessions to help you become more comfortable with the process and provide better responses. We’ll ask questions similar to those that you may be asked during the trial.
  • Provide guidance on demeanor and behavior. You should maintain a calm and professional demeanor, avoid becoming defensive or argumentative, and listen carefully to each question before responding.
  • Discuss potential challenges. We’ll discuss potential challenges that you might face during the trial, such as difficult questions or cross-examination. Our attorneys will prepare you to handle these challenges and respond appropriately.
  • Provide feedback. Our lawyers will offer you feedback on your performance during the mock questioning sessions or previous testimony. This feedback can help you improve your testimony and performance on the stand.

At Mary Beth Harrell Law Firm, we represent those charged with criminal offenses throughout Central Texas. We offer experienced criminal defense, beginning with your arrest and following through until your case is successfully resolved. Call us today in Killeen or Copperas Cove, or fill out our contact form to schedule a consultation. We also serve clients and families throughout Coryell County, Bell County, Temple, and Belmont.