Before closing arguments got underway on Wednesday in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, jurors visited the sprawling hunting estate where the disbarred South Carolina attorney found his wife and son dead in June 2021. The field trip to Moselle became the latest in a series of rare but high-profile instances where jurors are taken out of the courtroom and to the scene of a crime.
Last year, jurors in the trial of a former Louisville police officer involved in the 2020 raid and fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor visited her apartment before Brett Hankison was acquitted of wanton endangerment. Months later, the jury in the sentencing trial for Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who was sentenced to life in prison for the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., toured Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School years after 17 people, including 14 students, were killed.
But in the months since the Murdaugh murder trial has become the center of worldwide media coverage, including docuseries on Netflix and HBO Max and being carried live on cable news, the proceedings have drawn comparisons to another murder trial with high public interest nearly three decades ago that brought its jurors to the location of the killings: that of O.J. Simpson.
On Feb. 12, 1995, Simpson, along with 12 jurors, nine alternates, Judge Lance A. Ito and the attorneys in the case, made the roughly 15-mile trip from Los Angeles County Superior Court to 879 S. Bundy Dr., the location of Nicole Brown Simpson’s condominium in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The jury’s field trip to the estate took place eight months to the day after his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman were found fatally stabbed outside the residence.
Their killings led to O.J. Simpson’s arrest after he attempted to evade police in a white Ford Bronco in a televised chase that became one of the most publicized events in U.S. history. The murder trial would become one of the most memorable and covered legal proceedings of the era. Simpson would be acquitted in the trial, but was later found liable for the two deaths in a civil lawsuit.
While lead prosecutor Marcia Clark argued at the time that the trip to the Brentwood residence showed jurors how there could have only been room for one killer in the cramped area by Brown Simpson’s gate on June 12, 1994, Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s chief trial attorney, claimed that the small space worked in his client’s favor.
“How do you have a life-and-death fight in an area that small and not have bruises?” Cochran told reporters at the time.
The jury in the Murdaugh trial arrived at Moselle at around 9:45 a.m. Wednesday. Video from NewsNation reporter Brian Entin shows jurors and law enforcement driven onto the 1,772-acre property in at least six vehicles for what’s described as a “jury view” of Moselle. Closing arguments began Wednesday morning as the trial moves toward a conclusion, possibly in the coming days. If convicted, Murdaugh, 54, could face life in prison.
Murdaugh jury and law enforcement arriving at Moselle property to view scene of the murders. pic.twitter.com/AbzFQa8GKi— Brian Entin (@BrianEntin) March 1, 2023
Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman ruled in favor of Murdaugh’s defense team this week and granted its request to have the jury travel to Moselle so that they can better visualize the testimony and visit the site where Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22, were found dead June 7, 2021.
“You can’t really appreciate the spatial issues without actually seeing them,” defense attorney Richard “Dick” Harpootlian told the court.
After lead prosecutor Creighton Waters objected to the request and argued that the property looks different now than it did the night of the killings, Harpootlian told Newman this week that he did not want the jury to be “influenced by crazy paparazzi” after reports of intruders at the sprawling estate.
Moselle was publicly posted for sale by the Crosby Land Co. of Colleton County on Feb. 14, 2022 — roughly four months before Murdaugh was indicted by a grand jury on murder charges. Moselle, which includes a four-bedroom, 5,275-square-foot house, a farm, two miles of river for fishing and kayaking, and dog kennels, has been under contract from an undisclosed buyer for $3.9 million since June 6, 2022, according to the listing — almost a year to the day of the killings.
As the murder trial has gained more attention, some have pointed to similarities between the cases of Murdaugh and Simpson, including how their stories have been consumed as wildly popular docuseries. An expert in crime-scene reconstruction and blood-spatter analysis who was called by Murdaugh’s defense team testified this week that evidence from Moselle suggests that the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were carried out by two shooters. Some pundits have noted that the defense team’s strategy echoed the focus from Simpson’s attorneys in 1995, when Cochran argued that the “real killer(s)” DNA had vanished from evidence samples in an investigation that was “compromised, contaminated, corrupted.”
But 28 years before the Murdaugh jury went to Moselle, Simpson’s jurors did the same in Brentwood.
It was around 9 a.m. on a Sunday when the Simpson jurors were escorted by motorcycle police officers who shut down freeway on-ramps. When they exited a sheriff’s department bus — with steel bars over tinted windows — they walked into Brown Simpson’s Brentwood residence and retraced the gruesome details that had been presented to them in court.
“It’s very helpful to a jury listening to a witness to a crime scene if they look at it themselves,” F. Lee Bailey, one of Simpson’s attorneys, said in court that day, according to UPI. “I’ve long been in favor of jury views.”
The trip to Brentwood was not just for the jury but also for the attorneys, the judge and even Simpson. Even though Brown Simpson’s family objected to Simpson being allowed to return to the home, Ito allowed it. Simpson ended up waiving his right to visit the crime scene, instead choosing to stay in an unmarked police car around the corner as jurors went inside four or five at a time.
When the jurors were touring the location, Ito expressed his concern with jurors being out in public as part of a trial that had garnered worldwide attention. Brentwood residents were spotted on the day of the visit carrying signs such as “O.J.'s Guilty” and “Free O.J,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The problem is we will be out, literally out in Brentwood,” Ito said at the time.
Both the prosecution and defense teams in the Simpson trial used the visit to Brentwood to strengthen their arguments. Prosecutors emphasized how small the area was where the slayings unfolded in an attempt to upend the defense’s argument that the killings were committed by more than one person.
“It will go to the reason why one person could accomplish this,” Clark told reporters.
Added prosecutor Christopher A. Darden, “I think that Ronald Goldman, having confronted a suspect with a knife, was essentially caged.”
Bailey claimed to reporters, however, that the small space at Brown Simpson’s would not sway the jury.
“They are a very impassive group,” Bailey said of the jury, reported the Los Angeles Times. “What we’re banking on is that they’ll understand the evidence better having been to the places where the evidence grew out of last June.”
About eight months after the jury’s visit to the crime scene, Simpson was acquitted. If Murdaugh is acquitted, it could be in as little as a day or two after the jury’s visit to Moselle.