WASHINGTON: South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murder on Thursday in the shooting deaths of his wife and son in a case that chronicled the unravelling of a powerful Southern family with tales of privilege, greed and addiction.
The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding Murdaugh guilty of two counts of murder at the end of a six-week trial that pulled back the curtain on the once-prominent lawyer’s fall from grace.
Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison without parole for each murder charge when court is scheduled to reconvene for sentencing at 9:30am on Friday.
After the verdict was read, Judge Clifton Newman denied a defence motion to declare a mistrial, saying “the evidence of guilt is overwhelming.”
Murdaugh, who wore a dress shirt and jacket, appeared stoic with a slight grimace as the verdict was read. Once the hearing ended, Murdaugh was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom by two sheriff’s deputies.
His 52-year-old wife, Maggie, was shot four or five times with a rifle and their 22-year-old son Paul was shot twice with a shotgun at the kennels near their rural Colleton County home on June 7, 2021.
Mountain of circumstantial evidence
Prosecutors didn’t have the weapons used to kill the Murdaughs or other direct evidence like confessions or blood spatter. But they had a mountain of circumstantial evidence, led by a video locked on the son’s cellphone for more than a year — video shot minutes before the killings that witnesses testified captured the voices of all three Murdaughs.
Defence attorney Jim Griffin told reporters the Murdaugh team was disappointed in the outcome but had no further comment until sentencing.
The state’s legal team emerged from the courthouse to a celebratory atmosphere. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson thanked the prosecution for the past six weeks of late nights spent at a local hotel.
“It was all worth it. Because we got to bring justice and be a voice for Maggie and Paul Murdaugh,” Wilson said. “Today’s verdict proved that no one — no matter who you are in society — is above the law,” he added, a line met with applause from spectators.
75 witnesses and nearly 800 pieces of evidence
Through more than 75 witnesses and nearly 800 pieces of evidence, jurors heard about betrayed friends and clients, Murdaugh’s failed attempt to stage his own death in an insurance fraud scheme, a fatal boat crash in which his son was implicated, the housekeeper who died in a fall in the Murdaugh home, the grisly scene of the killings and Bubba, the chicken-snatching dog.
In the end, Murdaugh’s fate appeared sealed by the cellphone video taken by his son Paul, who he called “Little Detective” for his knack for finding bottles of painkillers in his father’s belongings after the lawyer had sworn off the pills.
Testimony culminated in Murdaugh’s appearance on the witness stand, when he admitted stealing millions from clients and lying to investigators about being at the dog kennels where the shootings took place but steadfastly maintained his innocence in the deaths of his wife and son.
“I did not kill Maggie, and I did not kill Paul. I would never hurt Maggie, and I would never hurt Paul — ever — under any circumstances,” Murdaugh said.
Murdaugh had told police repeatedly after the killings that he was not at the kennels and was instead napping before he went to visit his ailing mother that night. Murdaugh called 911 and said he discovered the bodies when he returned home.
But in his testimony, Murdaugh admitted joining Maggie and Paul at the kennels, where he said he took a chicken away from a rowdy yellow Labrador named Bubba — whose name Murdaugh can be heard saying on the video — before heading back to the house shortly ahead of the fatal shootings.
Decadeslong addiction to opioids
Murdaugh lied about being at the kennels for 20 months before taking the stand on the 23rd day of his trial. He blamed his decadeslong addiction to opioids for making him paranoid, creating a distrust of police. He said that once he went down that path, he felt trapped in the lie.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. Once I told a lie — I told my family — I had to keep lying,” he testified.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters grilled Murdaugh about what he repeatedly called the lawyer’s “new story” of what happened at the kennels, walking him moment by moment through the timeline and assailing his “fuzzy” memory of certain details, like his last words to his wife and son.
A state agent also testified that markings on spent cartridges found around Maggie Murdaugh’s body matched markings on fired cartridges at a shooting range elsewhere on the property, though the defence said that kind of matching is an inexact science.
Alex Murdaugh comes from a family that dominated the local legal scene for decades. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were the area’s elected prosecutors for more than 80 years and his family law firm grew to dozens of lawyers by suing railroads, corporations and other big businesses.
The now-disbarred attorney admitted stealing millions of dollars from the family firm and clients, saying he needed the money to fund his drug habit. Before he was charged with murder, Murdaugh was in jail awaiting trial on about 100 other charges ranging from insurance fraud to tax evasion.
Prosecutors told jurors that Murdaugh was afraid all of his misdeeds were about to be discovered, so he killed his wife and son to gain sympathy to buy time to cover his tracks.
Waters commended the jurors for seeing through what he described as more lies by Murdaugh.
“We had no doubt that when we had a chance to present our case in the court of law that they would see through the one last con that Alex Murdaugh was trying to pull. And they did,” Waters said after the verdict.
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.