It is rare for jurors to visit crime scenes, and doing so can be a risk for both the prosecution and defense. Closing arguments were scheduled for later on Wednesday.
ISLANDTON, S.C. — The vast estate is as idyllic as it is secluded, its fishing pond, expansive farmland and four-bedroom home shrouded by trees and a winding driveway that keep it all out of view from the highway.
On Wednesday, jurors weighing the fate of Alex Murdaugh, the prominent South Carolina lawyer charged with murdering his wife and son, traveled past the “no trespassing” signs to see where the double murder took place, one of the last stages of the trial before they begin trying to reach a verdict.
Testimony concluded on Tuesday after more than 75 witnesses took the stand over about five weeks. Jurors have heard evidence about Mr. Murdaugh, 54, his family’s legal influence in the region and the fatal shootings in June 2021 that left his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and their younger son, Paul Murdaugh, 22, dead near the property’s dog kennels. Prosecutors say Mr. Murdaugh carried out the crime in a failed effort to conceal his longtime embezzlement of millions of dollars.
The jury visit on Wednesday morning was to be followed by closing arguments from the prosecution and defense, after which 12 jurors will begin deliberations. Jurors spent roughly an hour on the property, walking between the dog kennels and a nearby shed and examining the outside of the main residence, about a 500-yard drive away. One juror could be seen standing in the door of a small feed room, where Paul Murdaugh was killed.
It is rare for jurors to visit crime scenes, and experts said bringing the jurors out of the tightly controlled courtroom environment and into the real world could carry significant risks for both the prosecution and defense.
“There are a lot of dangers with this,” said Nancy S. Marder, a law professor and jury expert at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who remembers sitting at a Starbucks in Los Angeles when a bus full of jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial passed by during their visit to the crime scene.
For example, experts said, lawyers are not allowed to point things out or speak with the jurors. “You don’t know what jurors will see when they get to the place,” Ms. Marder said. “They might focus on very different things.”
But the visits can also help jurors visualize a scene, and jury visits have been held in several high-profile cases, including the sentencing trial of the school shooter in Parkland, Fla.; the trial of a Louisville, Ky., police officer who was charged over the fatal Breonna Taylor raid and, perhaps most famously, the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles.
Melody Vanoy was among the jurors who toured Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which had largely been left untouched since 14 students and three employees were killed there in 2018. Ms. Vanoy said the visit was disturbing but important as she considered whether to sentence the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, to life in prison or to death. (She was among a minority of jurors who voted for the former.)
“Was it painful? Absolutely,” said Ms. Vanoy, a vice president for diversity and inclusion at a health care company. “But in going, I think it was helpful because it brings the case to life.”
Jurors are typically not allowed to speak with each other about the case until deliberations begin, and Ms. Vanoy said it was a unique experience to walk through and process such a disturbing scene without speaking to her colleagues.
“You cannot naturally process your emotions in the moment,” she said. “Your gut is to say, ‘Oh my God, did you see X?’ But you can’t. It was quiet.”
Ms. Vanoy said she found the visit helpful in understanding the physical distance between points in the school that had been discussed at trial.
Mr. Murdaugh admitted from the witness stand last week that he was at the dog kennels where the killings occurred with his wife and son in the minutes before the killings, but he said he drove a golf cart back to the main house before the shootings took place. His lawyers have elicited testimony that Mr. Murdaugh would not have been able to hear gunshots from inside the house. Mr. Murdaugh then left the property to visit his mother, an act the prosecution has painted as a calculated effort to build an alibi.
Valerie Hans, a law professor and jury expert at Cornell University, said jury visits 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 stored his accolades. But, she added, bringing jurors to a large property like Mr. Murdaugh’s could also lead to disdain for his wealth and privilege, which prosecutors have argued helped him hide embezzling from clients and legal partners.
“It’s a gamble,” Ms. Hans said. “It’s another way to humanize the individual to show this is the environment they lived in. But also, he was a wealthy man, so there’s a question mark.”
In asking for the visit, one of Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers, Dick Harpootlian, said he wanted jurors to be able to see the distance between various geographical points discussed in the case and the size of a small feed room where Paul Murdaugh was found dead.
“You just can’t really appreciate the spatial issues without actually seeing them,” he said in court.
Creighton Waters, the lead prosecutor, opposed the request, noting that the property has changed in the 20 months since the crime, including trees between the kennels and main house that are “markedly taller and thicker” than in the past.
Judge Clifton Newman allowed the visit and attended along with the lawyers. Over the objection of reporters, he barred journalists and the public from being on the property during the juror visit, instead allowing three journalists to see the scene briefly afterward.
Although much of the property is hidden from the road, it was clear this week that it had changed in the time since the crime, while no one has been living there. In addition to the tree growth, the once well-worn driveway is now nearly obscured by overgrown grass. Mr. Harpootlian asked the judge to ensure that the police secure the scene for the visit, saying that dozens of people had tried to trespass on the property during the trial, with some trying to take pictures near the crime scene.
Stew Mathews, a defense lawyer based in Cincinnati, requests jury visits in just about every serious case he takes on, he said. He did so last year when he successfully represented Brett Hankison, the former police officer who was found not guilty of endangering Breonna Taylor’s neighbors during a fatal police raid of her apartment.
Mr. Mathews said that while he could not be sure, he thought the jury visit had helped jurors in that case understand the scene, and perhaps understand the defense argument that Mr. Hankison did not know there was another apartment attached to Ms. Taylor’s.
“We had, as evidence, diagrams and photographs,” Mr. Mathews said. “But none of that does justice to actually getting out there and seeing 360-degree, live views.”