After two days of jury selection, counsel presented opening statements in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. The disbarred South Carolina attorney is accused of murdering his wife and son in June 2021. Murdaugh, fallen scion of a legal dynasty in the state’s lowcountry region, has pleaded not guilty to the double homicide charge. If convicted, he could face life in prison without parole.
Murdaugh did not wear handcuffs or ankle shackles and attended the trial in a purple-and-white checked button-down shirt and a blue blazer, his reading glasses balanced on the tip of his nose. Murdaugh’s surviving son Buster and brother John Marvin Murdaugh attended the proceedings. They are both listed in court filings as potential witnesses for the defense.
On Wednesday, prosecutor Creighton Waters laid out the broad strokes of the crime and the state’s case that Murdaugh was the killer. On the night of June 7, 2021, Murdaugh called the police in hysterics. He claimed he’d arrived home to find Maggie and Paul Murdaugh dead from multiple gunshot wounds near the dog kennels on the family’s 1,700-acre hunting compound, Moselle, in Colleton County. Maggie had been shot five times with an AR-style assault rifle, while Paul had been shot twice at close range with a shotgun.
Waters told jurors that shell casings found in a flowerbed and on a gun range would show that the rifle that killed Maggie was the same one Paul had been firing at different locations on the sprawling property with a friend in the weeks before the murder. “It was a family weapon that killed Maggie Murdaugh,” Waters said, adding that Murdaugh had since then been unable to account for one of the family’s three AR-style rifles.
In the days after the murders, Waters continued, police found a wadded-up blue raincoat with gunshot residue on the inside upstairs at Moselle’s main house, Waters said. This discovery came after a witness saw Murdaugh carrying a blue tarp upstairs. Waters argued the witness may have mistaken the tarp for a raincoat. There was also gunshot residue on the seatbelt of the car Murdaugh was driving the night of the murders, he said.
Waters placed a lot of emphasis on cell phone evidence — a Snapchat video, in particular, which had been discussed in court filings. He said that contrary to Murdaugh’s claim that he was at the main house that evening and did not visit the dog kennels before finding his family members’ bodies later that night, a video Paul took and sent to a friend on Snapchat around 8:45 had picked up the sound of Murdaugh’s voice. Four minutes later, cell activity on Paul and Maggie’s phones stopped forever. Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Murdaugh had made a flurry of phone calls as he drove to his mother’s home and back. Waters told the jury, “It’s up to you to decide if he’s trying to manufacture an alibi.”
Waters told the jury they’ll see crime scene photos, listen to the 911 recording, watch police body camera footage from the officers who responded to Murdaugh’s 911 call, and hear from the pathologist who examined the victims. “It’s going to be gruesome,” he said, then gestured to Murdaugh. “It’s what he did.”
Waters compared the murders to “a gathering storm” and said the case would be complicated because there were many aspects to it. “Like a lot of things that are complicated, when you start to piece them together like a puzzle, all of a sudden the picture emerges and it’s really simple,” he told the jury. “Once we get to the end of that journey and you have a chance to deliberate, the evidence is going to be such that you’re going to reach the inescapable conclusion that Alex murdered Maggie and Paul, that he was the storm.”
Murdaugh’s attorney Dick Harpootlian said the defense doesn’t have to prove anything. He said the state’s case was based on theories and conjectures rather than facts and said Murdaugh was a loving husband and father who was grieving the loss of his family.
He leaned into the horror of the killings, telling the jury that in order to convict Murdaugh, they would have to believe that a loving father had “butchered” his wife and child. Such a finding, he said, was “not believable.” He described the deaths in graphic detail, saying the second shot fired at Paul had “literally exploded his head like a watermelon hit with a sledge hammer” and sent his brain flying into the air.
Harpootlian said no part of Murdaugh’s behavior on the police body camera footage and 911 recording should be judged because he was in shock and “traumatized” at having found his wife and son “butchered,” repeating the term. At that, Murdaugh began crying at the defense table.
Harpootlian impugned the state’s evidence, saying the cell records were incomplete and that no blood, fingerprints or eyewitness ties Murdagh to the murders. He also claimed that the witness who had seen Murdaugh carry a blue tarp upstairs said the raincoat looked nothing like it. The prosecution objected to that, and the judge sustained the objection.
He said he would try to get permission to take the jurors to the crime scene. To demonstrate that Murdaugh didn’t have time to kill his family before returning to the main house and leaving in his car, he wanted jurors to see for themselves the distance between the main house and the kennels on the property, along with the pine trees, which he said obscure the view.
Investigators had jumped to conclusions, Harpootlian claimed. They believed Murdaugh was the killer because he was the husband of a dead wife. He acknowledged that Murdaugh, in his “traumatized” state, may not have “dealt all the facts” when police interviewed him. That was in part, he said, because they were questioning him in an accusatory way.
“They decided that night he did it,” Harpootlian said, while Murdaugh scowled over his glasses. “They’ve been pounding that square peg in the round hole since June of 2021.” Murdaugh, he said, should be presumed innocent, adding, “He didn’t do it.”
Earlier on Wednesday, 12 members of the jury and six alternates were sworn in out of the roughly 400 prospective jurors interviewed during the selection process. Many of the people interviewed had said they were familiar with the case. Several of them knew or had worked with the influential Murdaugh family. Before Alex, three generations of Murdaugh men had served as solicitor — the elected prosecutor — for the 14th Judicial Circuit. The family also ran a lucrative private litigation firm in Hampton County, where Murdaugh worked before being fired for allegedly misappropriating funds.
It would be hard not to have heard about this case by now. Murdaugh made national headlines in September 2021, when he, by his own admission, hired a hitman to kill him so his surviving son Buster could claim a life insurance payout. His lawyer said at the time that Murdaugh had been driven to opioid addiction in the wake of the tragic murders of his wife Maggie, and son Paul and was coping with withdrawal symptoms when he decided to take his own life. The allegedly staged drive-by shooting came just three months after Murdaugh had called 911, saying he’d found his wife and son shot to death on their Hampton County hunting compound called Moselle.
By October 2021, Murdaugh was back in custody on criminal charges that he’d stolen insurance settlement money from the family of his late housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who succumbed to injuries after a fall at Murdaugh’s house. Murdaugh has denied the allegations but agreed to pay Satterfield’s family. An investigation into Satterfield’s death by South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), is ongoing.
Murdaugh faces dozens more charges of financial crimes for allegedly stealing money from other legal clients, in addition to money laundering and drug trafficking charges. Murdaugh has not entered pleas for most of his criminal charges but has broadly denied all allegations against him.
At the time of Paul and Maggie’s deaths, Paul was awaiting trial on boating under the influence charges related to a 2019 boating accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. The judge on a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Beach’s family against Murdaugh approved a settlement in that case on Tuesday.
In the weeks after Maggie and Paul’s murders, SLED also announced they would investigate the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith who was killed in 2015 in a supposed hit-and-run in Hampton County. No one has been charged with his death.