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In graphic testimony, doctor who performed autopsies pushes back on Alex Murdaugh defense’s alternate theories about wife and son’s murders

Ellen Riemer testifies as a rebuttal witness

Dr. Ellen Riemer, on the far right, testifies as a rebuttal witness in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. on the left, in Colleton County, S.C. on Feb. 28, 2023.

The pathologist who performed the autopsies on Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son took issue with defense claims about how Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh were shot and killed as the state marshaled a series of rebuttal witnesses in Colleton County on Tuesday.

“Let’s talk a little bit about Paul,” prosecutor Creighton Waters said. “You heard the defense pathologist and their subsequent expert talk about there being a contact to the top of Paul’s head. Is that correct?”

Dr. Ellen Riemer replied in the affirmative and the two went on to discuss her specific reaction to the defense witnesses’ claims in light of her having conducted the actual autopsy of the Paul Murdaugh.

“The entrance was to the top of the left shoulder and then went into the left side of the head before exiting the top of the head,” Riemer said, disputing claims made on Monday by forensic pathologist Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat and forensic scientist Timothy Palmbach, who testified that Paul Murdaugh was likely killed by a contact blast–meaning the barrel of the shotgun was pressed against his head. Riemer believes the gun was roughly three feet away when fired.

“When there is a contact shotgun wound to the head, there is massive gas expansion within the cranial cavity, within the skull,” she went on, directly addressing jurors and referring to previous images they’ve been shown of the victim’s body. “And what that does, it doesn’t just create a hole, with some, you know, bones. This was–I understand this was like the most severe thing you’ve ever seen. And you probably can’t imagine that the damage to the head would be any worse.”

But, the state’s pathologist testified, a contact shotgun blast to the head would have left the victim decidedly worse off.

“His face was basically intact,” she said. “We would have had tears of the skin and his eyes would have been either displaced from the orbital bones; the orbital bones were intact. Any time there’s massive gas buildup within the cranial cavity from a contact shotgun wound to the head…the entire face–he would have not even had a face left.”

Riemer went on to say, using increasingly vivid descriptions of the likely damage, that a contact blast to the head would have destroyed all of the “delicate bones” in Paul Murdaugh’s face.

“He still had a forehead,” she said. “What we have here is not consistent with a contact shotgun would to the head.”

“The wounds to the shoulder and left side of the cheek have all the features of entry wounds,” Riemer added.

The discrepancy is potentially key because the claims made by the defense’s experts about the entry wound are part of the two-shooter theory. In that version of events, the first shooter, causing the contact shotgun blast, would have been struck by pieces of human remains and some pellets from the shotgun shell itself.

“I think that particular shooter, for a brief period of time, is kind of out of this,” forensic scientist Timothy Palmbach testified for the defense on Monday. “It’s not as if they can instantaneously suffer that, drop the shotgun, run to where the AR Blackout rifle is, pick that up, and then in any kind of a reasonable time period engage in a meaningful assault, an effective assault, able to shoot straight and make hits.”

SEE ALSO: Defense’s witness in Alex Murdaugh case tries to sow reasonable doubt with ‘2-shooter’ theory

In other words, Riemer’s testimony was intended to, indirectly, push back against one of the defense’s overarching claims.

“In my determination, this went up through the left cheek, out the right side of the top of the head,” Riemer said. “If this were a shotgun entrance wound, contact to the head, I don’t care whether–there’s no way his entire facial bones, and skin, his ears would have been flopped down. There’s so much gas expansion that the damages to his head would have been much worse.”

The prosecutor later sought to clarify the testimony.

“Is there any way that could have been a contact wound to the top of head?” Waters asked.

“No,” Riemer replied.

She then confirmed the direction of the shots that killed Maggie as well in response to another question.

“I disagree with his conclusions,” Riemer summed up her view of the defense argument.

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