Alex Murdaugh and the Evidentiary Value of Snapchat
If you have watched the news in the past month, you have likely at least heard of Alex Murdaugh, the South Carolina attorney currently on trial for allegedly murdering his wife and son. Murdaugh claimed the last time he saw the victims alive was ninety minutes before encountering their dead bodies. However, earlier this month, prosecutors introduced evidence from the son’s snapchat account which may destroy Murdaugh’s alibi: a video taken by the son shortly before his death in which you can hear another man’s voice. According to prosecutors, that voice belonged to Murdaugh.
At this day in age, it is more important than ever to understand the implications of technology and how technology can play a role in the legal process. To be sure, the American Bar Association has included technological competency in its model rules. See Model Rule 1.1: Competence, Comment 8. Wisconsin has followed suit with Formal Ethics Opinion EF-21-02, which requires attorneys have basic technological competence including “at a minimum, knowledge of the types of devices available for communication, software options for communication, preparation, transmission and storage of documents and other information, and the means to keep the devices and the information they transmit and store secure and private.”
While there is no requirement for attorneys to be experts in technology or possess any special training, it is important for attorneys to at least understand what information is available through technology. For example, Snapchat (the platform relevant to Murdaugh’s case) is an app that allows communication between parties that “disappear” after a set amount of time. In other words, users of Snapchat can send messages that are only available to recipients for a certain duration. While many Snapchat users believe the messages are unretrievable, that belief is misplaced. Rather, a forensic download of the sender’s – or recipient’s – device will likely find the previously “disappeared” messages. As attorneys, it is vital we understand what technological evidence may exist and how to retrieve same.
In Murdaugh’s case, and in many cases across the country, evidence gathered from technology unheard of just ten years ago can be vital to a jury’s decision. Had the prosecutors not conducted a forensic cell phone analysis of Murdaugh’s son’s phone, there is no telling if the jury would question Murdaugh’s alibi.
At Crivello, Nichols & Hall, we understand the importance of technological evidence and utilize same on a daily basis to fight for our clients’ best interests.