Alex Murdaugh convicted of murder in shootings of wife, son
The Alex Murdaugh case chronicled the unraveling of a powerful Southern family. A guilty verdict was handed down on Thursday.
Disgraced South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murder Thursday in the shooting deaths of his wife and son in a case that chronicled the unraveling 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. Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison without parole when he is sentenced, which in South Carolina is typically right after the verdict but can be delayed if a judge chooses.
A defense lawyer for Alex Murdaugh said Thursday that state agents were so determined to get the disgraced South Carolina attorney convicted of murder in the killings of his wife and son that they lied about or misrepresented evidence. When closing arguments wrapped up, the judge turned Murdaugh's fate over to jurors after giving them his final instructions, and they headed to their jury room to begin deliberations.
Attorney Jim Griffin gave the defense's closing, emphasizing Murdaugh's main point — that investigators focused solely on him and conducted the investigation so poorly that any evidence pointing to someone else, like fingerprints or possible DNA on Maggie or Paul Murdaugh's clothing, was never gathered.
“How could he have butchered Maggie and Paul without leaving a trace of evidence within a matter of minutes?” Griffin said.
Murdaugh, 54, faced 30 years to life in prison. Investigators said his 22-year-old son, Paul, was shot twice with a shotgun and his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, was shot four or five times with a rifle outside dog kennels on their rural Colleton County property on June 7, 2021. Prosecutors got the last word with a rebuttal argument after Griffin spoke.
“You can’t answer every question, and the law doesn't require it," prosecutor John Meadors said. Investigators think Murdaugh had no more than about 17 minutes from the time his wife and son stopped using their cellphones to when he left the property to visit his ailing mother.
Experts from both sides agreed there had to be a massive amount of blood, tissue and other material from the killings, but the prosecution did not present any evidence of blood spatter on clothes. The weapons in the case also have never been found.
“He had 17 minutes. He would have to be a magician to make all that evidence disappear,” Griffin said. No one tried to look for DNA on the clothes of the victims, which a killer could have left. No one tried to see if fingerprints or shoe prints could be lifted from the blood around Paul Murdaugh and matched to a possible killer, Griffin said.
Prosecutors think Alex Murdaugh killed his wife and son because he feared his years of stealing millions of dollars from his law firm and clients would be exposed and his lofty standing in the community toppled. They said he hoped their deaths would make him a sympathetic figure and draw attention away from the missing money.
Motive is not a necessary element to prove the crime. But Rachel Fiset, a Los Angeles-based trial attorney, said prosecutors painstakingly laid out motive to address the question she figures must have weighed on juror’s minds.
“I don’t think there could possibly be any conviction without answering that lingering question of why Alex Murdaugh would kill his family,” Fiset said.
A key piece of evidence for prosecutors is a video that includes the voices of Murdaugh, his wife and son at the kennels just minutes before investigators said they were killed. The video wasn’t discovered for a year because agents couldn’t initially hack into his son’s iPhone for 20 months.
Alex Mudaugh told everyone that he wasn't at the kennels but while testifying in his own defense, he finally admitted he was there.
"He lied because that’s what addicts do. He lied because he has a closet full of skeletons," Griffin said.
Prosecutors said all Murdaugh did was lie — to the people he was stealing from, to police about a key fact in their investigation, to his family about his drug use and even about the order in which he checked his wife and son for signs of life, switching who he checked first in different police interviews.
Griffin said that showed how badly the state wants to convict Murdaugh at all costs, referring to prosecutors' closing argument where they said the evidence showed Maggie Murdaugh died while running to see her son.
“Alex was running to his baby. Can you imagine what he saw?" Griffin said. "And is it evidence of guilt that he doesn’t remember what the sequencing was at that moment?”
Griffin said his time as a prosecutor left him pained to say the State Law Enforcement Division either fabricated or lied about evidence.
The lead agent on the case said on the stand that he told the grand jury that indicted Murdaugh 13 months after the deaths that the T-shirt Murdaugh was wearing when police arrived had high velocity blood spatter from his son that happens when someone is shot at close range. But other agents in the case had already reported further testing on the shirt showed no blood on it and the shirt was never mentioned by prosecutors at the trial.
Meadors said law enforcement is not on trial, Murdaugh is. The prosecutor said he was offended that Murdaugh's defense is claiming that law enforcement "didn’t do their job while he is withholding and obstructing justice by not saying, 'I was down at the kennels.’”
And there was the matter of the blue rain jacket that state agents said was covered in gunshot residue when it was found at Murdaugh's mother's house. Investigators theorized Murdaugh wrapped guns in it to hide on his parents' property, but Murdaugh's family didn't recognize it and it wasn't his size. Griffin ended his closing argument with a plea to the jury.
“On behalf of Alex, on behalf of Buster, on behalf of Maggie and on behalf of my friend Paul, I respectfully ask you do not compound a family tragedy with another,” Griffin said, his voice breaking.
Earlier Thursday, Judge Clifton Newman removed a juror because she discussed the case with other people. Five jurors have had to be replaced during the six-week trial, leaving the jury with just one alternate during deliberations, which began at 3:50 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Newman's exchange with the juror Thursday was pleasant. He asked her if she needed the bailiff to get any of her things from the jury room. She said she had her purse and a dozen eggs that a fellow juror brought for each juror from his farm.
Fiset said the lone alternate juror marks an alarming development given the risk of illness posed by COVID-19. In a case with less direct evidence, she expects a longer deliberation — and a longer period for members to remain healthy.
“They are one person away from this jury being a mistrial,” Fiset said.
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