Disgraced former attorney Alex Murdaugh faces trial next week on charges of murdering his wife and son, part of a sprawling case that has exposed a seamy underside to political power and influence in South Carolina’s lowlands.
It is a bizarre and southern Gothic tale of brutal murders, still unsolved deaths, an apparently faked assassination attempt, a family fortune and layers of small town corruption going back generations. Not surprisingly, it has gripped America and attracted the interest of numerous documentary makers.
The trial, being heard in the courthouse in the town of Walterboro, is no more than 10 miles from the dog kennel at the family’s 1,700-acre hunting property near Islandton – known locally as Moselle – where 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and her son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, were found on 7 June 2021, after Murdaugh made an emergency call saying he had found them slain.
The charges against Murdaugh – two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime – were brought by a grand jury in July. Court documents allege Murdaugh shot his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun.
He has pleaded not guilty to the murders and asked to be judged “by God and country”.
But prosecutors have offered no motive for the killings – or how they might tie into Murdaugh family connections to other death investigations in the lowlands: that of a young nursing student, Stephen Smith, a friend of Murdaugh’s son Paul, who was found dead in the middle of a road in 2015; family housekeeper Gloria Satterfield in 2018; and 19-year old Mallory Beach, who died in a boating accident in which Paul Murdaugh was present in February the following year.
One theory is that a civil suit brought by Mallory Beach’s family over the boat crash could have exposed Murdaugh to a discovery order into his finances. Rather than submit to that order, Murdaugh could have killed his wife and son to divert the story to unknown assassins.
And then there is the strange case of Curtis “Eddie” Smith, a distant cousin, who was apparently drafted in to fake a murder attempt on Murdaugh after his wife and son were killed so that his surviving son, Buster, could collect on a multimillion-dollar life-insurance policy.
Murdaugh had initially claimed he was shot by an unknown assailant while changing a flat tire. Two days later, he entered a rehabilitation facility in Georgia. In a statement, he said he had been having “an incredibly difficult time”. He later turned himself in on insurance fraud, conspiracy and false statement to police charges.
The investigations, which run alongside complaints of fraud stemming from a concealed insurance payout arising from Satterfield’s death, and funds missing from Murdaugh’s family law firm, paint a picture of alleged criminality facilitated by the Murdaugh family’s socially elevated position in South Carolina’s political, legal and economic hierarchy.
For more than 85 years, a Murdaugh has served as South Carolina’s 14th circuit solicitor – the chief prosecutor for the region and elected, some claim, by votes bought through donations of money “to the Black folk and the churches”.
At the same time, the family ran Colleton county’s largest law firm that profited from lawsuits against CSX, a $66bn railroad and freight company whose tracks run through the county.
“They were powerful. They own the country. If you went to court, you won. Didn’t matter what it was. Don’t think Alex, his father Buster, or his grandfather ever lost a case. He told the judge what to do”, Suzy Murdaugh, a relative on her father’s side, told the Guardian in October 2021.
The double-murder case against Murdaugh could resolve at least one aspect of a mystery that the New Yorker described this week as a narrative “entering the realm of deepest noir, complete with serial fake-outs, intimations of corruption, and a true psychological puzzle at its center”.
According to prosecutors, Paul Murdaugh was hit by a pair of shotgun blasts – one to the head, the other to the arm and chest. Maggie Murdaugh was killed by multiple rounds from a semi-automatic rifle, with two of those inflicted as she was lying wounded on the ground.
Some theorize that investigators never had anyone but Murdaugh in their sights: soon after the killings officials said no threat existed, prompting speculation that a suspect must be known to them.
Pre-trial motions have suggested some aspects of Murdaugh’s defense case.
His attorneys, led by Dick Harpootlian, a powerful state senator and a member of the senate judiciary committee, requested that the judge prohibit the state from offering testimony regarding blood spatter by Tom Bevel, a former Oklahoma police officer who runs a forensic consulting company.
At issue is a T-shirt worn by Murdaugh on the night his wife and son were murdered. Prosecutors claim that at least some of the blood is high-velocity impact spatter from one or both of the victims. But Murdaugh’s defense says any blood on the shirt was transferred there when he “frantically checked them for signs of life”.
But an initial report commissioned by Sled – South Carolina’s state law enforcement division – found no stains on the T-shirt consistent with blood spatter that would come from a gunshot. But a second report – from Bevel – said “100+ stains are consistent with spatter”. But the state also claims that the shirt itself has been destroyed for evidentiary purposes.
“Sled retained Mr Bevel to opine that T-shirt is stained with high-velocity blood spatter that could only come from being in proximity with them at the time of their murders,” the motion reads. It claims the state only reached out to the expert six weeks after an earlier test revealed that the shirt was “definitively negative for human blood in all areas of the shirt where purported spatter is present”.
The motion claims that Bevel’s opinion in this regard was based on an “at-home ‘science fair’ experiment” conducted in his “garage or kitchen or wherever” and that Bevel carries “no credentials in any scientific discipline”.
Murdaugh’s defense team has also accused the state of waging “a campaign of selective and deceptive leaks to news media to convince the public that Murdaugh is guilty before he is tried”.
As the trial opens, several documentaries on the case are being prepared. One of those, Netflix’s Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is set to debut as the trial concludes.
The title alone suggests a willingness to believe that tales focused on the south are almost by definition Gothic in nature or, as William Faulkner once wrote, subsumed with an “eagerness to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough”.
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