WALTERBORO, SC — A prosecutor on Wednesday painted a damning portrait of the evidence against Alex Murdaugh, the legal South Carolina scion charged with the murders of his wife and son, telling the court that Mr. Murdaugh texted and then called his dead wife to commit the brutal murders and be driven to his mother’s house, all in an effort to establish an alibi.
But for Mr Murdaugh’s attorney, Dick Harpootlian, the viciousness of the murders was just one of many reasons why Mr Murdaugh, 54, whom he described as a loving father and husband, could not be responsible. “He didn’t kill – slaughter – his son and his wife,” Mr Harpootlian told the jury in his opening statement. “And you must put every suggestion he made out of your mind.”
The competing arguments opened up one of the state’s most anticipated murder trials in a generation, and each side pulled back the curtain on a mountain of evidence that jurors must sift through when weighing whether a man is his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all who served as prosecutors were to be sent to prison. The trial takes place at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, in a courtroom where a portrait of Mr. Murdaugh’s grandfather hung until ordered to be taken down for trial.
The case, which involves not only a gruesome murder but also the dramatic downfall of a local legal dynasty, has drawn attention across the country. Podcasts, documentaries and near-endless online forums have cataloged every detail as Mr. Murdaugh’s life was unraveled in the wake of the murders prosecutors say he committed to avoid disclosure of his own financial crimes.
Creighton Waters, the lead prosecutor, said in his opening statement that the state would rely heavily on forensic and other physical evidence to prove Mr. Murdaugh carried out the murders, which took place on the family’s vast rural hunting estate, about 65 miles west of Charleston.
Prosecutors say there was no lack of motive: Mr. Murdaugh stole millions of dollars from his clients and his law firm over the past decade, they said, and efforts to learn more about his finances threatened to expose his wrongdoings. Mr. Murdaugh, they argue, carried out the killings in a desperate, failed attempt to gain public sympathy and prevent his embezzlement from being exposed.
“Listen to this gathering storm coming to a head,” Mr. Waters told the jury. “The evidence will be such that you will come to the inescapable conclusion that Alex murdered Maggie and Paul, that he was the storm, that the storm was coming their way, and that the storm hit on June 7th, 2021.”
According to prosecutors, Mr Murdaugh fatally shot his younger son Paul Murdaugh, 22, in the door of a kennel’s feeding room and then pointed another gun at his wife Maggie Murdaugh, 52, completing the job with an execution. Style shot to the back of her mind.
Evidence, Mr Waters said, includes bullet casings found elsewhere on the property that matched those found around Ms Murdaugh’s body, suggesting she was killed with “a family weapon”. He said Mr Murdaugh could not explain two out of three rifles he had bought in recent years and that empty ammunition boxes were found on the property, which were the same make and type as the cartridge cases found next to the bodies were found.
Understand the “Murdaugh Murders”
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The Murdaughs are powerful. The family has dominated the legal profession in a rural part of the state for more than a century. For nearly 90 years, the post of chief prosecutor for a five-county region was held by a Murdaugh. For even longer, the family law firm has been one of the premier tort litigation firms in the state.
Mr Murdaugh has been accused of defrauding millions. The attorney was arrested on October 14, 2021 and charged with stealing millions of dollars from a settlement intended for the children of a housekeeper who died at the family home in 2018 after falling down the front steps.
Mr Waters also said that police inquiries found a raincoat covered in gunshot residue at Mr Murdaugh’s mother’s home, which he visited on the night of the murders.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Waters said, is newly uncovered cell phone evidence. He said that less than five minutes before prosecutors believe the murders took place, Paul Murdaugh took video of a dog to send to a friend and that his father’s voice could be heard in the background – although Mr. Murdaugh said so. After that he wasn’t in the kennel that night, instead taking a nap inside.
Five minutes later, at 8:49 p.m., Mr Waters said Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s phones were locked and both never responded to messages or calls again.
According to prosecutors, within minutes of the murders, Alex Murdaugh called his wife twice, received no answer, and then texted her to say he was checking on his mother, who lived about 20 minutes away. He left the family property just after 9 p.m. and spent about 20 minutes with his mother, who prosecutors say has late-stage Alzheimer’s and was with a caretaker.
According to prosecutors, it was a callous and calculated attempt to cover his tracks, as were five additional phone calls he made to different people as he drove to and from his mother’s home. Mr Waters asked the jury to consider the possibility that Mr Murdaugh drove away from his home with his wife and son dead on the ground to try to “establish an alibi”.
Just after 10 p.m., Mr. Murdaugh returned to the home, where his attorneys say he was at the scene for the first time and called 911. But prosecutors say he quickly tried to mislead police by suspecting the perpetrator may have targeted his son over a fatal boating accident two years ago. At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh was facing charges that he crashed a boat while intoxicated, killing one of his passengers.
The boat crash was linked to the crime, prosecutors claim, but not in the way Alex Murdaugh suggested. They say a legal battle over the passenger’s death had threatened Mr Murdaugh to reveal details of his finances, possibly revealing his embezzlement. On the day of the murders, he was also confronted by his law firm about non-payment.
Mr Waters said Mr Murdaugh gave police three videotaped statements that would be played in court and he asked the jury to watch them closely.
“Note his expression,” said Mr. Waters. “Listen to what he says. Listen to what he doesn’t say. Does that seem correct, or does something seem a little off?”
To Mr. Harpootlian, Mr. Murdaugh’s lead counsel, the prosecution’s theories are no more than speculation that ignores key facts. He said two videos taken by Paul Murdaugh shortly before the killings showed the family enjoying a relaxing evening, including the father and son laughing over some recently planted trees. He said Mr. Murdaugh had no reason – let alone enough time – to commit the murders and go to his mother’s.
“The cell phone records show he had less than 10 minutes to kill her, walk to the house, get in the car and crank it,” Harpootlian said. “He would be covered in blood.”
Mr Harpootlian also said the white T-shirt Mr Murdaugh wore that night had no blood on it and asked the jury: “Where are the bloody clothes?”
He and prosecutors have argued in pre-trials over whether or not tests revealed microscopic splatters of blood on the T-shirt. Judge Clifton Newman, who is overseeing the trial, has yet to decide whether prosecutors can call a witness who concluded there was spatter on the shirt, one of several key evidence issues still emerging at the trial.
The wildly different descriptions of Mr. Murdaugh’s actions that night and what the evidence shows may add even more importance to the two sides’ interpretation of the physical evidence and conflicting analysis.
Among the 12 jurors – eight women and four men – are a school assistant, a project manager, a postman and a medical center worker, all of whose identities are being kept secret because of the attention the trial has received.
The trial, expected to last three weeks, has transformed the small town of Walterboro, with food trucks lined up beside the courthouse to serve the influx of lawyers and journalists, and with locals marveling at the conclusion of the trial each day , while Mr. Murdaugh is being led out of the back of the courthouse in handcuffs.