Disgraced South Carolina lawyer 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.
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.
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.
Investigators think Murdaugh had no more than about 17 minutes from the time his wife and son stopped using their mobile phones 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.
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,” Ms 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 was not discovered for a year because agents could not initially hack into his son’s iPhone.
For 20 months, Alex Murdaugh told everyone that he was not at the kennels but while testifying in his own defence, he finally admitted he was there.
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 mobile 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.
Murdaugh lied about being at the kennels for 20 months before taking the stand on the 23rd day of his trial.
He blamed his decades-long 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.
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.
The 54-year-old will learn his sentence on Friday when court is scheduled to reconvene at 9.30am.
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.
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