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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ted Clifford, John Monk, Bristow Marchant and Blake Douglas

Alex Murdaugh found guilty of murdering wife, son in June 2021

WALTERBORO, S.C. — Alex Murdaugh, the fourth-generation heir to a powerful South Carolina legal, law enforcement and political family, was found guilty Thursday of murdering his wife and son in a case that brought the glare of national and international media attention to a long-secluded but corrupt corner of the state's Lowcountry region.

A jury of seven men and five women took less than three hours before unanimously finding Murdaugh, 54, guilty of two murders: the execution-style slaying of his son Paul, 22, with a shotgun inside the feed room at the family’s dog kennel, followed by the gunning down of his wife, Maggie, 52, with a high-powered rifle on June 7, 2021, at the family 1,770-acre rural Colleton County estate, called Moselle.

Murdaugh, a disgraced lawyer who faces life in prison, stood stoic as the verdict was announced in the same courtroom where his father, Randolph, and his grandfather, “Buster,” brought cases as the circuit solicitor against thousands of accused criminals over the years. Murdaugh’s great-grandfather, the original Randolph Murdaugh, was solicitor from 1920 until his death in 1940.

After a poll of the jurors found the decision to be supported unanimously, Murdaugh’s defense team made one final move to have Judge Clifton Newman set aside the verdict and declare a mistrial.

Newman refused.

“The evidence of guilt is overwhelming and I deny the motion,” he said, telling the jury. “All the evidence pointed to one conclusion, and that is the conclusion you-all reached.”

Newman said he would delay sentencing until Friday morning, noting that “many people will likely have something to say.”

Newman can sentence Murdaugh from 30 years to life in prison for each count of murder. He is known as a tough sentencer who often comments on the crimes committed by those found guilty before him.

Murdaugh was remanded to the custody of the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, who have held Murdaugh in the county jail throughout the six-week trial. Deputies had Murdaugh put his hands behind his back, and then in a short burst of metallic clicks heard around the courtroom, put handcuffs on the former millionaire now disbarred lawyer.

For six weeks, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters pulled together a case with one major hurdle: no direct evidence.

In the case brought against Murdaugh, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office had no direct evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, that would have allowed the state to conclusively prove Murdaugh’s guilt. Even the weapons used to kill Paul and Maggie were missing — hidden or destroyed by Murdaugh, prosecutors contended.

To overcome that hurdle, prosecutors introduced hundreds of pieces of evidence, ranging from police interrogation videos, gunshot residue tests, car and cellphone data and — most importantly — a cellphone video taken from Paul’s phone that showed Murdaugh at the dog kennels just before his wife and son were murdered.

All the digital data shredded Murdaugh’s alibi of being somewhere else at the time of the killings, prosecutors contended.

Murdaugh’s alibi was that he quickly drove to his ailing mother’s house in a nearby unincorporated community, Almeda, where he visited with a caregiver and lay on his mother’s bed for 30 to 40 minutes minutes as a game show played on the television.

He then told investigators he drove back to Moselle, where he found the bodies of Maggie and Paul and called 911.

Nearly three hours later, the jury sided with the prosecution.

To explain Murdaugh had a motive for the killings, Waters introduced a theory called “family annihilation,” which says that an outwardly successful person who has lived a hidden life and suddenly faces exposure, might suddenly kill those closest to him.

To prove this theory, Waters introduced nine witnesses, who testified that Murdaugh for years had lived a secret life of fraud, stealing from friends, family, colleagues and his law firm, bilking them of millions of dollars. Waters also showed the jury that Murdaugh, on the day of the murders, was on the verge of being exposed as a debt-ridden criminal instead of a prosperous respected lawyer.

At the heart of the widespread media interest in the latest generation Murdaugh was a long-running “whodunit” mystery that quickly attracted national and international attention because of the brutality of the Maggie and Paul’s execution-style killings, the prominence of the victims’ family and the seeming helplessness of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division to identify even one suspect for more than a year or advance a theory of what had happened.

For 14 months — until Murdaugh’s indictment on murder charges in July 2022 — neither SLED officials nor prosecutors from the S.C. Attorney General’s office would comment on evidence in the case or law enforcement’s highly publicized failure to make an arrest.

The murders had taken place at night, the crime scene had been overrun by Murdaugh’s friends and family until it was sealed off and there were no witnesses except the family’s dogs who barked at investigators from their cages. The state was never able to produce the murder weapons, a shotgun and a .300 Blackout assault-type rifle.

Facing life in prison without parole, Murdaugh has seen witness after witness testify how he has stained the name of his family that has been woven into the fabric of the 14th Judicial Circuit for more than a century.

Today “Murdaugh” has become shorthand for wickedness and the firm the family founded in 1910 was dissolved and reformed, without the Murdaugh name.

In a move reportedly opposed by his defense team, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, Murdaugh took to the stand for two days.

In testimony that was in turn tearful, defiant and litigious, the disbarred attorney denied killing his wife and son.

But in five hours of cross-examination by Waters, Murdaugh offered a stunning series of admissions. He confessed, for the first time, to lying about his alibi and to a decade’s worth of thefts from his clients and his law firm, which he said was driven by a need to fund a $50,000 a week addiction to prescription painkillers.

Even before he took the stand, Murdaugh’s defense team had little room to maneuver.

Newman granted the prosecution’s wish list of motions.

He allowed them to introduce a landslide of witnesses who testified about Murdaugh’s financial crimes, leading Harpootlian to protest that it was more of a “Madoff trial than a murder trial.” Bernie Madoff was imprisoned for orchestrating a $64.8 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history.

While not required to prove motive, Waters repeatedly accused Murdaugh of being a “family annihilator,” driven to commit a biblical act of destruction when the facade of his successful life began to crack.

Ballistics experts also matched a family gun to the weapon that killed Maggie and the state used family’s phones and data from Murdaugh’s car to map out a minute-by-minute timeline of events, casting doubt on the defense’s improbable claim that Murdaugh missed the killings by mere minutes.

Many of the witnesses were drawn from the inner circle of the Murdaughs’ close knit and clannish world, among them Murdaugh’s surviving son, 26-year-old Buster, who testified in his father’s defense.

Their testimony threw back the curtain on an insular world of privilege and power among the swamps of the Lowcountry.

Since the fatal 2019 boat crash allegedly caused by Paul, the family has gained unwelcome international prominence through podcasts, documentaries and a zealous community of online sleuths.

In court, the 6-foot-4 Murdaugh often appeared gaunt, his once red hair turned almost white. He frequently rocked back-and-forth and openly wept during testimony.

It was hard to connect the man at the defense table with the image of well-fed, affluent contentment who beamed out from family pictures that have been featured heavily in nearly four years of coverage of the case.

The verdict is a vindication for SLED and the S.C. Attorney General’s office, who conducted perhaps the state’s highest-profile law enforcement investigation and prosecution in a generation amid a whirlwind of scrutiny and criticism.

It was also a personal test for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office rarely prosecutes murders and who sat at the prosecution’s table throughout the trial and led direct examination of the state’s final witness.

Wilson is the heir to his own South Carolina legacy — his father is U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson – and is rumored to be considering a run for higher office.

The case was transferred to his office after 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone recused himself on Aug. 11, 2021.

Stone occupied the same office that had been held by Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great grandfather. Murdaugh himself held the nebulously defined role of “volunteer solicitor,” and frequently displayed the badge in his car’s cup holder while maintaining a seven-figure a year practice at the Murdaugh law firm.


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