Opening statements began Wednesday afternoon in Walterboro, South Carolina, in the trial of Alex Murdaugh, who has been charged with the 2021 murders of his wife and youngest son – the most serious and the grisliest of allegations faced by the once prominent, but now disbarred, attorney.
Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in the killings of his wife Margaret (known as Maggie) and 22-year-old son Paul on June 7, 2021. Prosecutors will seek life in prison without parole if Murdaugh is convicted.
Murdaugh called 911 the night of the killings to report he’d found his wife and son shot dead at the family’s home. But prosecutors accuse him of committing the murders to distract attention from a series of alleged illicit schemes he was running to stave off “personal legal and financial ruin,” according to court filings. Evidence will show, the state claims, that Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes were “about to come to light” when his wife and son were killed.
“You’re gonna hear some of what was going on in Alex Murdaugh’s life, leading up to that day – stuff that happened that very day, stuff that was leading up to a perfect storm that was gathering,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said in his opening statement Wednesday, after two days of jury selection ended with 12 trial jurors and six alternatives being seated.
“Listen for that evidence,” Waters said. “Listen to that gathering storm that all came to a head on June 7, 2021 – the day the evidence will show he killed Maggie and Paul.”
But Murdaugh’s defense attorney, Dick Harpootlian, said the state’s opening was filled only with “theories” and “conjecture. His client, who appeared in court wearing a navy sport coat and glasses, was “the loving father of Paul and the loving husband of Maggie,” Harpootlian said.
Not a single witness will tell the jury that Murdaugh and Maggie’s relationship was anything but loving, attorney Dick Harpootlian said. Paul, he said, was the “apple of his (father’s) eye,” as exhibited by a Snapchat video the jury will see from the night of the killings, showing the father and son laughing and bonding over trees they planted.
“To find Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his son, you’re going to have to accept that within an hour” of bonding, “that he executes him in a brutal fashion,” Harpootlian said. “Not believable.”
A Colleton County grand jury indicted Murdaugh in the deaths of his wife and son 13 months after the killings. By then, Murdaugh had “fallen from grace,” in the words of his own attorney, buried under a mountain of allegations of white-collar theft and fraud.
Separate from the murder charges, Murdaugh faces 99 charges stemming from 19 grand jury indictments for various crimes, according to the state attorney general’s office, including allegedly defrauding his clients and former law firm of nearly $9 million. Just last month, the AG’s office announced Murdaugh had been indicted for tax evasion for failing to report almost $7 million of income earned through illegal acts, for which he allegedly owes the state almost $500,000.
The trial has been slightly complicated by the prominence of the Murdaugh family and name: What was already a gripping tragedy worthy of true crime podcasts and documentaries was given a Southern Gothic twist, in large part because three generations of Murdaughs over 87 years served as solicitor for the 14th Circuit, which oversaw prosecutions throughout the South Carolina Lowcountry.
As a result, the office of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is prosecuting the case due to the family’s close ties to the local solicitor’s office.
Indeed, in the Colleton County courtroom where Murdaugh pleaded not guilty last summer, a portrait of his late grandfather, one of the solicitors, had hung on the wall.
The portrait was removed ahead of Murdaugh’s trial.
In his opening statement, Waters previewed for the jury evidence he said the state had amassed against Murdaugh, including the fact he called his wife twice after she had been killed from a third of a mile away.
Maggie’s phone locked for the final time around 8:49 p.m. the night of the killings, Waters said. Murdaugh – whose phone did not record much activity for about an hour beginning at 8:09 p.m., per Waters – called his wife at 9:02 p.m. She didn’t answer, and he called again just four minutes later. He then texted his wife that he was going to visit his mother and drove to Almeda, South Carolina.
“It’s up to you,” Waters said, “to decide whether or not he’s trying to manufacture an alibi.”
The victims, who were shot at close range, had no defensive wounds – as if they “didn’t see a threat coming from their attacker,” Waters said.
Maggie was killed by a “family weapon,” Waters said, an AR-style rifle Murdaugh bought his son to replace another that went missing. “That replacement gun is nowhere to be found.”
Weeks before the murders, Paul and his friends fired the gun several times on the family’s property and at a shooting range across the street, leaving empty shells in the flower bed and at the range, Waters said. Prosecutors will show the jury, he said, those empty shells were ejected from the same weapon that ejected the casings found around Maggie’s body.
And while Murdaugh “told anyone who would listen” he was not present at the scene of the killings, the evidence will show he was there, Waters said, holding up a cellphone.
Murdaugh’s voice, the prosecutor claimed, will be heard in video Paul recorded from the kennels on the family’s property the night of the killing, along with his wife’s and son’s, minutes before his son’s phone “locks forever.”
In his own opening, Harpootlian acknowledged the brutality of the murders, saying Maggie and Paul Murdaugh had been “butchered.”
Murdaugh “comes home and finds his son laying in his own blood, with his brain laying at his feet, shot to hell,” Harpootlian said. “He goes over, tries to get a pulse out of Maggie, calls 911.”
“I want you to hear that 911 tape,” the attorney said. “It is a man, hysterical in grief, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Paul’s head, Harpootlian said, “exploded” – an injury he suggested would cover the perpetrator in blood head-to-toe, particularly if the killer shot the 22-year-old at close range. But investigators took Murdaugh’s clothes that night, the attorney said, and while they tested a number of spots on the defendant’s shirt and pants, they found no blood.
Harpootlian also offered a counter to the prosecution’s description of the missing rifle, saying Paul was “very irresponsible with guns, cars. He’d leave guns around, he’d leave guns in cars.”
“I can’t tell you whether he was shot with his own weapon or not, or his mom was shot with his weapon or not,” Harpootlian said. “But I can tell you that they weren’t shot by Alex. They don’t have the guns. There’s no way to tell conclusively without having the weapons.”
Ultimately, Harpootlian said, investigators concluded the night of the killings that Murdaugh was guilty, pointing to what he described as “aggressive” questioning. “Without forensics, without cell phones, without any of that,” he said. “And they’ve been pounding that square peg in the round hole” since the killings, he said.
Harpootlian stressed to the jury his client is presumed innocent and it’s the state’s job to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Your mental framework is, he didn’t do it,” Harpootlian said. “They have to prove it to me beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Murdaugh’s facade as the scion of a prominent legal dynasty began to crumble several months after the killings, when he called 911 to report he’d been shot on the side of the road in Hampton County, not far from his home.
But he later told authorities he conspired with a former client, Curtis Edward Smith, to kill him as part of an insurance fraud scheme, per court documents, purportedly so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance payout.
Murdaugh had resigned from his law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, or PMPED, the day prior to the shooting. His attorneys said he struggled with an opioid addiction and was entering rehab, while the firm said his resignation followed “the discovery by PMPED that Alex misappropriated funds in violation of PMPED standards and policies.”
The Murdaugh killings also led to renewed interest in other deaths within the family’s orbit, including that of their longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield. She died in 2018 in what was described as a “trip and fall accident” at the family’s home. Prosecutors would later allege Murdaugh connected Satterfield’s family to another attorney to help them sue Murdaugh himself for insurance money he ultimately pocketed.
The Murdaugh case also brought fresh scrutiny to February 2019 death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who was killed when a boat, allegedly driven by Paul Murdaugh, struck a bridge piling. At the time of his death, the 22-year-old was facing charges of boating under the influence causing great bodily harm and causing death. He had pleaded not guilty, and court records show the charges were dropped after his death.
Beach’s family filed suit against Alex Murdaugh, who owned the boat, and his financial records – which state court filings said “would expose (Murdaugh) for his years of alleged misdeeds” – would likely have been disclosed in a hearing scheduled for June 10, 2021, three days after Maggie and Paul were killed.
Following their deaths, the hearing was canceled, putting off what prosecutors described in court records as a “day of reckoning.”
Prosecutors have indicated these cases and others help illustrate a potential motive for Murdaugh to kill his wife and son. When Murdaugh was arraigned on the murder charges, prosecutor Creighton Waters said the information gathered in the grand jury case, including allegations of white-collar fraud, “provides the background and the motive for what happened on June 7, 2021.”
As for Murdaugh, he remained defiant that day. When asked how he wanted to be tried, responded, “by God and by country.”