Police defend withholding details in South Carolina killings

Jul 15, 2021, 11:20 AM | Updated: 12:37 pm

WALTERBORO, S.C. (AP) — State police told a judge that they don’t want to release more information about the slayings of two members of a prominent South Carolina legal family and, after more than a month of investigation, said they still don’t know what evidence might be important to solve the case.

The State Law Enforcement Division was in court Wednesday with The Post and Courier. The Charleston newspaper sued the agency, saying it had violated the state public records act by first refusing to release police reports on the killings, then heavily blacking out information in the reports that were released.

The agency is investigating the June 7 deaths of Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and her son Paul Murdaugh, 22.

Alex Murdaugh found his wife and son shot several times outside a home on the family’s Colleton County land after checking on his seriously ill father, authorities said.

State agents have released little information on their investigation and a lawyer seemed to suggest the probe isn’t focused on any particular person or theory on what could have happened. If the wrong information is released, it might affect the memories of witnesses or prevent agents from catching people they question in lies.

“At this stage of any investigation such as this, it is exceedingly difficult to know precisely what evidence, witnesses, and information are of ultimate importance, and what evidence, witnesses, or information proves to be of little value,” the State Law Enforcement Division and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office wrote in court papers.

Colleton County deputies turned the investigation over to state police almost immediately.

The Post and Courier’s lawyer argued the state agency was heavy-handed with how it blacked out information in the reports. He said the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requires the agency to say exactly how any information not released would affect the investigation instead of allowing officials to just say it might cause a problem.

State police released 18 pages of reports last month. All but one page had redactions and some pages were entirely blacked out.

The information that wasn’t redacted included details about a deputy asking to get a tent to put over evidence while crime scene technicians worked, another deputy who outlined where he put crime scene tape and other officers asking nearby homes and businesses if they have surveillance cameras pointing toward the road.

“They’re not thinking about the Freedom of Information Act,” newspaper attorney Edward Fenno said. “They’re just redacting as they see fit.”

At the end of the hearing, Circuit Judge Bentley Price said he would review the redactions and if he felt they weren’t legal, order more information released.

The Murdaugh family is offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who provides information that leads to the killer’s conviction and the State Law Enforcement Division continues to promote a 24-hour-a-day tip line for the case at (803) 896-2605.

Alex Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all longtime elected prosecutors and, along with other family members, have had successful private law practices in nearby Hampton County and the surrounding area.

At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh was awaiting trial on a charge of boating under the influence causing death in a February 2019 crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Whether local law enforcement agencies tried to obstruct the investigation into the boating death is also being reviewed by state officials.

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Police defend withholding details in South Carolina killings