Alex Murdaugh trial: Power, privilege, and the downfall of a dynasty

Alex Murdaugh at his murder trial

Alex Murdaugh was charged with the brutal killings of his wife and son after the Murdaugh family ruled their rural region of South Carolina for generations. The stunning dismantling of a life of privilege and power that followed revealed drug use, theft, and a botched hitman suicide attempt.

You may find some language offensive.

In the fifth week of his murder trial, Alex Murdaugh took the stand.

In the crowded courtroom in Walterboro, South Carolina, Mr. Murdaugh would present two sides of himself over the course of nearly ten hours as he testified in his own defense. One had a thin, lilting voice that suggested fatigue. Months in jail had reduced his once-bulky frame, causing his clothes to hang loosely. He sobbed while rocking back and forth and shaking his head from side to side.

The other appeared to be much more like the intelligent and endearing man that other witnesses had described as a formidable competitor in the state's exclusive legal community. This Mr. Murdaugh addressed the jury directly and did so in a calm and composed manner.

He remarked, "What a tangled web we weave.".

A painting of his namesake, his great-grandfather Rudolph "Buster" Murdaugh, which had been removed for the trial, had been replaced directly in front of him on the back wall of the courtroom with a rectangular-shaped sun stain.

The Murdaugh family ruled over the local prosecutor's office and the private law firm that made them wealthy for nearly a century in this flat expanse of marshlands, palm trees, and porch-ringed homes in southern South Carolina.

But after the brutal murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in June 2021, a string of odd and tragic occurrences contributed to Mr. Murdaugh's stunning fall from grace. The 54-year-old has denied committing the killings, which the prosecution claims were an desperate attempt to hide years of financial wrongdoing. However, while testifying, he admitted to a number of additional crimes, including fraud, embezzlement, and a staged assassination attempt.

One of the nation's most intensely followed trials currently is this one. It has brought about the downfall of a local dynasty and exposed what some perceive to be the Murdaugh family's seemingly unchecked power in their small community.

Former US attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles said, "This is what happens when ordinary people have no checks and balances.".

And he had no checks and balances in place. " .

A photo of the Murdaugh family shown in court
A picture of the Murdaugh family was displayed in court. Maggie and Paul (centre) were fatally shot on 7 June, 2021.

Knowing the Murdaugh surname means being familiar with South Carolina's Lowcountry. The longest period of family control in American history occurred between 1920 and 2006, when three generations of Murdaugh men presided as the state's chief prosecutor for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit.

According to Mr. Nettles, "They were the law.".

The Murdaughs worked at the family-founded law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED) for even longer, making a small fortune and consolidating their control over the entire Lowcountry. They were the best, by all accounts, in a region where personal injury firms flourished.

"They could get a verdict that would exceed the norm dramatically," said South Carolina lawyer Joe McCulloch.

And when I say exceed the norm, I mean that they could make a $100,000 case settle for a million dollars. " .

Their judicial district gained a reputation as the plaintiffs' Mecca. According to reports, businesses that could avoid it completely avoided the region.

Locals claimed that the Murdaughs' familiarity with the jury would be an advantage in court.

According to Eric Bland, a South Carolina-based malpractice lawyer, "people would send gifts when they graduated high school; they paid for funerals; they sent flowers to people who were in the hospital.". "They added goodwill to the town. ".

The Murdaughs became the de facto rulers of the Lowcountry out of their two offices in Hampton. Although their influence was limited—it didn't even cover the state's width—it was profound. Residents claimed that the Murdaugh family ruled over their small, isolated community.

We all knew them, claimed one waitress in the area who also declined to give her name because she didn't want to "get in trouble" for interrupting. She also objected to being caught on camera. You're just going to have to keep this in mind, she advised. They had authority. Furthermore, they went too far. ".

The dog kennels at Moselle, where Paul and Maggie were killed
At the family's remote hunting estate, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed in June 2021.

Former PMPED CFO Jeanne Seckinger provided an account of Alex Murdaugh's strategy as a lawyer during the third week of the trial. Basically, she said, "the art of bullshit.".

According to Ms. Seckinger, Mr. Murdaugh's success stemmed "not from his work ethic, but from his ability to forge connections and manipulate people into agreeing to deals and clients into liking him. ".

With the millions of dollars he earned from his work, he was able to provide for his family's lavish lifestyle, which included a speedboat, a beach house, a sizable 1,700-acre hunting estate called Moselle, and a staff to help. However, Murdaugh's success, which appeared to come naturally to him, was actually a cover for years of theft, fraud, and embezzlement.

Mr. Murdaugh tearfully confessed to stealing $3.7m (£3m) from settlements intended for his clients while testifying in Walterboro. He admitted that it was wrong but that he had no other choice because his addiction had depleted his finances.

State prosecutors painted a picture of theft and fraud on a nearly unbelievable scale, with a perpetrator confident in his immunity. They claim that Mr. Murdaugh stole from both clients and coworkers, the young and old, the disabled and the ill, without discrimination. He is charged with nearly 100 different financial offenses.

Ms. Seckinger testified that she had observed yellow flags and minor irregularities in Mr. Murdaugh's files for years. However, she claimed that the company was a "brotherhood". They believed in him. ".

Another individual who had faith in Mr. Murdaugh was Tony Satterfield. Mr. Murdaugh advised Tony and his brother to file a wrongful death lawsuit against him and said his home insurance would cover damages when Mr. Satterfield's mother Gloria, the Murdaughs' housekeeper of 20 years, passed away following a workplace accident. He even offered a lawyer who could assist in suing him.

The Satterfields did not receive any of the $4.3m that was paid out by two of Mr. Murdaugh's insurance policies. Even though the case had been resolved, they were unaware. It had been stolen, as Alex Murdaugh acknowledged in court.

According to Eric Bland, the malpractice attorney who defended the Satterfields against Mr. Murdaugh, "I feel like if someone had paid closer attention, they would have figured this out.".  "But those kids revered the Murdaughs, they trusted him. " .

Spectators inside the Alex Murdaugh trial
People are traveling great distances to attend the trial because it has captivated America.

There was another fatal accident near the Murdaugh family one year after Gloria Satterfield passed away. Prosecutors contend that the tragedy would present a problem this time that Alex Murdaugh would be unable to handle.

Paul Murdaugh was on board the family boat late that night on February 24, 2019, when it rammed into a bridge, sending three of the six passengers — all young adults — flying into the chilly water below. One of them, Mallory Beach, 19, was killed; her body was found days later in a marsh some distance away.

All of the other passengers said that Paul had been driving at the time of impact. A blood test revealed that Murdaugh, then 19 years old, had a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit.

Taken together, witness testimony from the night renders an image of Mr Murdaugh hellbent on insulating his son. They claimed that he walked between rooms, attempting to talk to the teenagers. He appeared to be "orchestrating something," a nurse remarked.  One passenger, Connor Cook, said in a deposition he was told by Mr Murdaugh "to keep my mouth shut".  He was scared, he said, "them being who they are".

On the stand last week, Mr Murdaugh called any claims that he had "fixed witnesses" or influenced any part of the boat wreck investigation "totally false".

The Murdaugh family
Paul, his youngest son, and his wife, Maggie, are alleged to have been killed by Alex Murdaugh.

Still, to those in the Lowcountry, the boat crash was seen "as a test of the system", said Mandy Mattney, a reporter based in South Carolina who has led coverage of the Murdaughs since 2019. Everyone in Hampton had a strong conviction that Paul wouldn't face charges. " .

However, Paul was later charged with three crimes, including drunken boating that resulted in death. Although he entered a not guilty plea, he passed away before going to trial.

Looking back, it might have marked the beginning of Alex Murdaugh's downfall.

The family of Mallory Beach hired Mark Tinsley as their attorney to represent them in a wrongful death lawsuit against Mr. Murdaugh that might have netted millions of dollars in compensation.

Murdaugh claimed to be in need of money. Mr. Tinsley admitted during the trial this month, "I didn't believe it.

Thus, Mr. Tinsley filed a motion to compel Mr. Murdaugh to reveal his financial information. On June 10, 2021, there would be a hearing on the subject. His years of corporate fraud would be exposed by the disclosure.

Mr. Tinsley declared, "The fuse was lit.".

Alex Murdaugh testifies
To the murders of his wife and son, Mr. Murdaugh has entered a not-guilty plea.

On 7 June 2021, three days before the hearing on his finances was scheduled, Alex Murdaugh called 911. He claimed that his wife Maggie and son Paul had both been shot.

By the time the first deputy of the sheriff reached Moselle, Mr. Murdaugh had already shared with him his theory: Paul and Maggie had been murdered in retaliation for the boat accident.

Mr. Murdaugh said of his son, "He's getting threats.  "I know that's what it is. " .

Many people in the Lowcountry shared his belief, and after Paul passed away, the wrongful death lawsuit fell by the wayside.

But three months later, Mr Murdaugh called 911 again, this time to report that he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural road.  He later admitted to arranging a hit on himself so that his surviving son, Buster, could collect on his life insurance.  As the ploy fell apart, his firm disclosed they had pushed him out just the day before the incident over alleged embezzlement.

The mystery surrounding Maggie and Paul's murders deepened for months as authorities said little about the case and provided no hints regarding suspects or motive.

Crowds line up to see the Alex Murdaugh trial

For more than a month now, Alex Murdaugh's downfall has drawn early morning crowds to the Walterboro courthouse, a line too long to fit inside.  Upstairs, in the courtroom's cool air, spectators in suits and sundresses have filled row after row of the dark wooden pews that line the room.  At times, the mood has felt strangely like a church reception, Mr Murdaugh's brother and son milling around, offering handshakes and tepid smiles.

The prosecution and defence will present closing arguments in the coming days before the jury retires to consider its verdict.

Here in the Lowcountry, many said they believed Alex Murdaugh was at the end of the line.

But for decades, the Murdaugh family has made an ally out of juries, walking out of courtrooms with the judgments that built their fortunes and cemented their influence.

Alex Murdaugh's fate will be decided the same way, perhaps a final test of his influence in a case where all the evidence is circumstantial - there was no murder weapon found, no blood on Mr Murdaugh's t-shirt that night, no eyewitnesses to the killings.

And his decision to testify - both an unusual move and a legal risk - was perhaps a testament to an enduring self-belief, a confidence in his ability to sway people, like he has done for years.

"I can promise you I would hurt myself before I would hurt one of them," he said last week.  "Without a doubt. ".

.  Then, in July 2022, Mr Murdaugh was arrested in connection with the killings

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