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Tuesday April 23, 2024

Lawyer found guilty of killing wife, son in case that captivated US

Alex Murdaugh, who wore a blazer and showed little emotion, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, concluding a complex case that has often touched on the bizarre

By AFP
March 03, 2023
Murdaugh, who wore a blazer and showed little emotion, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, concluding a complex case that has often touched on the bizarre..— Screengrab via ABC News
Murdaugh, who wore a blazer and showed little emotion, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, concluding a complex case that has often touched on the bizarre..— Screengrab via ABC News

WASHINGTON: A US jury on Thursday found lawyer Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and son on their hunting estate.

Scion of an elite South Carolina family of judges and attorneys, Murdaugh, 54, was described as having killed his son Paul with a shotgun and his wife Maggie with the assault rifle Paul used for hunting wild pigs on the family's sprawling property.

In this file booking photo released by the Hampton County Detention Center in South Carolina on September 17, 2021, shows US lawyer Alex Murdaugh.— AFP
 In this file booking photo released by the Hampton County Detention Center in South Carolina on September 17, 2021, shows US lawyer Alex Murdaugh.— AFP

Following the reading of the verdict, which the jury reached after less than three hours of deliberation in a South Carolina court, the defence requested a mistrial which Judge Clifton Newman quickly denied.

"The evidence of guilt is overwhelming," Newman said.

Murdaugh, who wore a blazer and showed little emotion, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, concluding a complex case that has often touched on the bizarre.

The jury heard how Murdaugh murdered his family members on June 7, 2021 after realizing his years of stealing millions from his law firm and from clients to feed his hidden opioid addiction was about to go public.

While evidence put Murdaugh at the scene shortly before the murders, the guns were never found, and there was no bloodstained clothing or other direct evidence that could prove he was the killer.

Sentencing will be held Friday morning, Newman said, with Murdaugh facing a minimum of 30 years and maximum of life in prison for each murder count.

"We can't bring them back, but we can bring them justice," South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said of the victims during a press conference following the verdict.

"Today's verdict proves that no one — no one — no matter who you are in society, is above the law," he said.

Tainted crime scene

After a six-week trial, the jury determined the evidence was strong enough to convict Murdaugh on two counts of murder and two firearms charges.

Murdaugh, who repeatedly broke down in tears over two days of testimony last week, flatly denied killing Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22.

He described discovering their bodies at the dog kennels on their sprawling Islandton, South Carolina property known as Moselle, with Maggie shot five times with a rifle and Paul's head shredded by a shotgun blast.

The defendant admitted he stole and embezzled, and also lied about his drug habit, which his attorneys said cost $50,000 a week.

But he said he would never lie about killing his family.

His attorney argued that investigators tainted the crime scene at the kennels and failed to pursue other possible suspects, including Murdaugh's drug suppliers and people angry over Paul's involvement in the February 2019 boating death of a teenage girl.

It is "totally illogical, irrational and insane... for somebody to kill their loved ones when their criminal conduct is being exposed," Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin told the jury.

'Master liar'

Prosecutor Creighton Waters argued that Murdaugh is "a master liar" who stole money from a crippled client, from the family of a former Murdaugh maid who died in a fall years earlier, and from his law partners.

Waters focused on Murdaugh's lying to investigators on the evening of the crime that he had not been at the kennels before he discovered the bodies.

Later a video was found on Paul's cell phone showing Murdaugh was there an estimated five minutes before the shootings.

Waters said Paul had recently discovered his father's drug habit, and the morning of the murders Murdaugh was confronted about missing money at his law partnership.

"Everyone who thought they knew who he was, he's fooled them," said Waters.

"He fooled Maggie and Paul too, and they paid with their lives," he told the jury.

Southern gothic

The twists and turns of the family story — the maid's death, the death of another young man near the Murdaugh property, and even Alex Murdaugh's hiring of his own drug dealer to kill him in an insurance scam — have captivated the American public.

Adding to that is the little-known culture of the South Carolina "Lowcountry" — the poor, marshy region once known for its slave trade, with its distinctive clipped southern accents and where Murdaugh's family for generations dominated the law as attorneys, prosecutors and judges.

The court heard details on the lives of the region's landed gentry, their passion for hunting ducks, deer and the wild hogs, and the dozens of guns the Murdaughs kept.

Not waiting for a verdict, Netflix and HBO scored hits with fictionalized documentaries rushed out during the trial.

"Decades of powerful influence over the legal system in the South Carolina Lowcountry unravel amid accusations of fraud, deception, and murder," HBO said in promotional material.