What to know about Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial
Alex Murdaugh’s family long dominated the legal scene in his small South Carolina county, but for the past six weeks, he was on the other side of the courtroom, standing trial on murder charges in the shootings of his wife and son. He was convicted Thursday and sentenced to life in prison the next morning.
More than 75 witnesses were called and about 800 photographs, reports and exhibits were presented as evidence. Jurors visited the crime scene Wednesday before the prosecution and defense gave closing arguments over parts of two days.
When closing arguments wrapped up Thursday, the judge turned Murdaugh’s fate over to jurors, who took less than three hours to come back with their verdict. Murdaugh, 54, could have received as little as 30 years behind bars, but the judge on Friday gave him the maximum: two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Here are some takeaways from the trial:
WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE KILLINGS?
Alex Murdaugh called 911 on the evening of June 7, 2021, and said he found his son and wife dead when he returned home from a one-hour visit with his mother, who has dementia.
Authorities said Paul Murdaugh, 22, was shot twice with a shotgun, each round loaded with different sized shot, while Maggie Murdaugh, 52, was struck with four or five bullets from a rifle. A crime scene report suggested both victims were shot in the head after initially being wounded near dog kennels on the Murdaughs’ sprawling rural property.
Prosecutors took more than a year to charge the disgraced lawyer with murder but decided not to pursue the death penalty. Murdaugh, who is also charged with about 100 counts of financial and other crimes, adamantly denied any involvement in the killings.
WHAT WAS THE PROSECUTION’S CASE?
Prosecutors, who contend that Murdaugh killed his wife and son to distract from his financial crimes, did not present direct evidence against him.
They called 61 witnesses and introduced more than 550 pieces of evidence over 17 days of testimony — from descriptions of the brutality of the killings to numbing details about bank records.
The weapons used to kill the victims were not produced. But prosecutors did get one key piece of evidence that showed Murdaugh lied to police and that put him at the kennels where his wife and son were shot just five minutes before investigators think they were killed because they stopped using their cellphones.
It’s a video taken by Paul Murdaugh, locked in his cellphone for a year after the killings until federal agents could hack into it. Alex Murdaugh told the first police officer to arrive and every investigator afterward that he was never at the kennels. But his voice is on that video.
“That changed everything,” prosecutor Creighton Waters said in his closing statement Wednesday.
“I did lie to them,” was one of the first things Murdaugh said when he took the stand in his own defense, blaming paranoia about law enforcement because he was addicted to opiates and had a bottle of pills in his pocket when he was questioned.
Waters asked jurors why an innocent man who just saw his wife and son slaughtered or the state agents investigating would be worried about pills.
“He was lying to you when he made that up — just like he has lied to everyone close to him. And he’s good at it,” Waters said.
Murdaugh was the 72nd witness called during the trial.
His defense team wasted no time. Their first questions were whether he killed his wife or son, which he denied forcefully. During questioning by his lawyer and prosecutors, he repeatedly denied that he ever hurt them.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters tried one last time: “Mr. Murdaugh, are you a family annihilator?”
“You mean, did I shoot my wife and son?” Murdaugh said in a measured tone. “No. I would never hurt Maggie Murdaugh. I would never hurt Paul Murdaugh under any circumstances.”
In his closing argument, Waters pointed out that Alex Murdaugh nodded as he said that, just like he nodded in police videos when state agents asked if he was at the kennels on the night of the killings and he said he wasn’t.
Murdaugh also admitted over and over that he lied and stole millions of dollars from his clients and law firm. Waters told the court about nearly every victim and asked Murdaugh if he lied to their faces.
“I took money that wasn’t mine. And I shouldn’t have done it. I hate the fact that I did it. I am embarrassed by it. I’m embarrassed for my son. I am embarrassed for my family,” Murdaugh said.
Murdaugh is awaiting trial for the many financial crimes he admitted to on the stand and insurance fraud charges for asking someone to kill him so his surviving son could get his $12 million in life insurance as well as tax evasion and money laundering charges.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
The defense called experts who said investigators didn’t dust for fingerprints, collect and test blood, or photograph evidence with the angles or clarity needed to study it properly later.
The first officer arrived at the rural Colleton County estate 20 minutes after Murdaugh called 911. Almost immediately, the local sheriff turned the investigation over to the State Law Enforcement Division.
It took hours for agents from across the state to get deep into the South Carolina Lowcountry. During that time, more than a dozen family and friends walked around the scene, comforting Murdaugh.
The bodies of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were covered with a sheet, which can absorb fluid, instead of a tarp. Then the sheet wasn’t saved, meaning possible hair or DNA from a killer could have been lost. Intermittent rain fell and the runoff from the kennel roof fell on Paul Murdaugh’s covered body.
When state agents arrived, they sent Murdaugh and his entourage to the home. Witnesses testified that it hadn’t been searched for weapons, bloody clothes and other evidence, or even checked to see if a suspect was hiding inside.
The defense also called an expert who testified that the killings likely required two shooters because both Paul and Maggie Murdaugh appeared to have been taken by surprise. Their hands were not raised in defense and the shockwave, blood and gore after Paul Murdaugh was shot in the head at close range with a shotgun likely would have stunned the shooter for at least several seconds and Maggie Murdaugh would have responded.
Alex Murdaugh was charged with both killings, which bound prosecutors to him being the only shooter.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin said Thursday that state agents put Murdaugh in the center of a circle of suspicion and did nothing to get him out.
“We believe we have shown conclusively that SLED failed miserably in investigating this case and, had they done a competent job, Alex would have been excluded from the circle a year ago,” Griffin said.
WHAT DID THE JUDGE SAY?
After Thursday’s verdict was read, the defense moved to have a mistrial declared and the outcome tossed out, but Judge Clifton Newman denied the motion and commented on the massive amount of evidence and testimony jurors heard.
“The jury has now considered the evidence for a significant period of time, and the evidence of guilt is overwhelming,” he said.
Murdaugh’s lawyers will almost certainly appeal the conviction based on the judge allowing evidence of the financial crimes, which they contend were unrelated to the killings and were used by prosecutors to smear Murdaugh’s reputation.