Alex Murdaugh is standing trial for the killings of his wife and son at their hunting estate in June 2021 — charges that have led to the unraveling of a prominent South Carolina attorney known for multimillion-dollar judgments and whose family dominated the legal scene in a small county for decades.
If found guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22, Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors did not choose to seek the death penalty. Murdaugh is also charged with two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, which could carry an additional five years in prison.
Murdaugh has adamantly denied killing his wife and son, saying he’d been gone for an hour to visit his ailing mother on the night of the murders. During opening statements at the trial that began this week, Murdaugh’s lawyers said that investigators have wrongly forced evidence to fit their theory that he killed his wife and son and that they ignored any other information. They described him as a loving husband and father.
Over the 13 months that authorities probed the murders, investigators pouring through the details of Murdaugh’s life announced dozens of other charges against him, including money laundering, stealing from his clients, and trying to get a man to kill him so that his surviving son could claim a life-insurance policy.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE NIGHT OF 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 was shot twice with a shotgun, each round loaded with different size shot, while Maggie Murdaugh was struck with four to five bullets from a rifle. A crime scene report suggested both victims were shot in the head after initially being wounded.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Creighton Waters conceded it is not an open and shut case. He made almost no mention of DNA evidence, fingerprints, confessions or eyewitness statements.
Instead, Waters held up his cellphone in front of the jury and said such devices would be key to linking Murdaugh to the killings. Their frequent exchange of information and data have given investigators a second-by-second account of where all three people were the night of the killings, Waters said.
Waters said there was plenty of circumstantial evidence, including a missing rifle, ammunition used in the killings similar to what was found in the home, and gunshot residue — all of which will fit together like puzzle pieces, he said, to eventually create a clear picture of what happened.
HOW DOES A BOATING ACCIDENT FIT INTO THE MURDAUGH TRIAL?
About two years before the killings, Paul Murdaugh was charged with a felony, for boating under the influence. Investigators said his blood-alcohol level was 0.24 % after he crashed a boat, leading to the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who was onboard.
Alex Murdaugh came to the emergency room the night of the February 2019 crash and talked to others on the boat who survived. The Beach family said he was trying to use his influence to stymy the investigation and deflect blame from his son.
More than two years later, Alex Murdaugh mentioned the boat crash to the first deputy to arrive on the scene of the killings of his wife and son.
“This is a long story. My son was in a boat wreck a while back. We’ve been getting threats, I know that’s what it is,” Murdaugh said to Colleton County Sgt. Daniel Greene, according to body camera video admitted at the trial.
Beach’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alex Murdaugh and his family. Prosecutors said Murdaugh worried that financial information he had to give to lawyers in that case would reveal all the money he had stolen from clients.
WHAT IS THE MURDAUGH FAMILY’S LEGAL LEGACY?
The Murdaugh name is well-known in judicial circles in the rural, southern South Carolina. Alex Murdaugh worked for the family law firm that had been in business in tiny neighboring Hampton County for a century, winning a number of multimillion-dollar settlements for fatal accidents and workplace injuries in the county of 18,000 people.
Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were the elected prosecutors for 87 years straight in Colleton, Hampton and three other counties.
Typically, a portrait of Murdaugh’s father hangs in the Colleton County Courthouse. Judge Clifton Newman ruled that it be removed during his son’s trial.
WHAT OTHER CRIMES IS MURDAUGH CHARGED WITH?
The murder charges, which took authorities 13 months to file, are only two of about 100 criminal counts Murdaugh faces. Most of the other charges were brought first.
They include stealing millions of dollars from clients, diverting a wrongful death settlement from the family of his longtime maid to himself, running a drug and money-laundering ring, evading taxes and committing fraud from what police said was an attempt to have someone kill him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life-insurance policy.
Indictments on the tax-fraud charges indicate Murdaugh made nearly $14 million as a lawyer over nine years, but also stole nearly $7 million from his law firm at the same time.