Opportunity, means and motive – the three pillars of a criminal prosecution – were sketched out in sharp relief at the Alex Murdaugh trial this week in what appeared to be a series of courtroom losses for the man at the center of a gruesome double murder case that has gripped America.
Mixing deep south intrigue, family squabbles, political corruption and brutal violence – including a faked assassination attempt against Murdaugh himself – the trial playing out in Walterboro, South Carolina, has attracted throngs of journalists and daily coverage in US media.
Jurors have now heard claims that Murdaugh, 54, shot dead his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son Paul, just hours after his business partner confronted him about $792,000 missing from the family law firm.
“He broke down crying,” Chris Wilson, Murdaugh’s business partner, testified on Thursday, before Murdaugh told him he had been stealing money from the company to support an opioid addiction for more than 20 years.
Murdaugh’s tears have become a theme of the trial. At times during the opening days of the case, during which graphic pictures and body-cam footage of the crime scene has been shown to the court, Murdaugh has sobbed or wiped his eyes with a tissue. The defendant has also been supported by his surviving son, Buster, 26.
In one exchange, Murdaugh, who has pleaded not guilty and faces life in prison without parole if found guilty, turned to his son to ask: “Are you OK?” Buster nodded in response.
Prosecutors claim that Murdaugh committed the horrific murders to divert attention away from the decade of financial crimes that were at the time gathering about the defendant “like a perfect storm”.
But jurors in the case have not yet heard the extent of the financial claims against Murdaugh that amount to 99 separate charges, ranging from tax evasion to embezzlement. At the time of the murders, Murdaugh was also facing a lawsuit over the death of a 19-year-old, Mallory Beach, in a boat accident involving his son Paul.
At a hearing scheduled for three days after the killings, Murdaugh’s financial records – which civil court filings said “would expose [Murdaugh] for his years of alleged misdeeds” – could have been made public.
In the murder trial, prosecutor Creighton Waters has said he wants Murdaugh’s financial condition admitted to establish a motive for the murders so jurors can comprehend that the defendant was “out of options and out of time”.
By murdering his wife and son, prosecutors said, Murdaugh hoped to buy time and sympathy. “He was burning through cash like crazy,” Waters said last week outside the presence of the jury. “He had been living in a velocity of money that is really quite stunning.”
But Murdaugh’s defense has fought vigorously to prevent any financial motive from being admitted into court, with defense attorney Jim Griffin calling the move “totally inappropriate”.
The exchange over Murdaugh’s finances came after seemingly damning evidence placed the defendant at the scene of the crime at the estimated time of the murders between 9pm and 9.30pm on 7 June 2021.
Murdaugh, it is alleged, met his wife and son for dinner before shooting them dead at the kennels of their country estate, Moselle, using separate weapons to make it look like an ambush. The defendant has claimed he was asleep in the house, then woke to visit his ailing mother before returning to find his wife and son dead.
But the court has heard from a South Carolina investigator who testified that Murdaugh muttered: “I did him so bad” after being shown a picture of his son’s body during an interview three days after the killings.
Murdaugh’s defense claimed that he in fact said: “They did him so bad” and asked why, if Murdaugh had said “I did him so bad” investigators didn’t follow up on it and ask him to clarify what he meant.
“It was early in the investigation, it was more of an information-gathering interview and we did not at that particular time have any evidence to challenge anything that Alex would have told us,” state law enforcement division (Sled) agent Jeff Croft said.
According to prosecutors, the timeline of events shows Murdaugh was at the crime scene at the time of the murders.
Paul Murdaugh sent a Snapchat video riding around the estate at 7.56pm. Twenty minutes later, at 8.15pm, Murdaugh’s wife Maggie arrived home and the family ate dinner.
Fifteen minutes later, Paul’s phone starts moving towards the kennels. A second video, at 8.44pm, appears to show that all three of the Murdaughs were together at the kennels. Five minutes later, the phone is locked.
But at 9.06pm Murdaugh’s car starts, and the defendant goes to visit his mother. An hour later, at 10.07pm, Murdaugh called 911 to say he had arrived home to find both his wife and son dead.
Investigators later determined that both had been shot multiple times before they were ultimately shot in their heads – Paul with a shotgun and Maggie with an AR-style rifle.
“His brain flew out,” the lead defense attorney, Dick Harpootlian, said in court of Paul’s death. “There’s hair and blood and pieces of skull in the ceiling around him.” Investigators have testified that Murdaugh’s hands and clothes were clean of blood, despite claiming that he attempted to turn his son’s body over to check for a pulse.
“Did he look like someone who had just blown his son’s head off?” Griffin asked rhetorically. Laura Rutland, a detective with the Colleton county sheriff’s office, said she could not say “for sure”.
During the investigation, police found an arsenal of weapons at the house but never the two weapons – a shotgun and AR-15 – used to commit the crime. But similar ammunition to the type used in the killings was found at the home. The defense claims Paul Murdaugh was known to leave guns and ammunition all over the property.
Defense lawyers also claim there’s a “reasonable explanation” for the distance between the shots that killed the pair, with one victim – Paul – found inside the kennels and his mother gunned down some distance away.
“There are two people there, there are two guns there, one’s a shotgun, one’s an AR,” Harpootlian said. He suggested that Paul could have been shot by one perpetrator, while another who was acting as “the lookout” was surprised by Maggie.
As part of the defense’s effort to undermine the prosecution’s case, they raised questions about investigators’ apparent failure to preserve footprints and tire tracks found at the crime scene. Daniel Greene, a police officer who attended the crime scene, said preserving that evidence was “not part of my job description”.
Harpootlian raised concerns about crime scene preservation. At least one bloody footprint found was created by one of the first responders. “Should the police be walking through the scene?” Harpootlian asked Sled investigator Melinda Worley.
“No,” Worley replied.
“Do we know what other evidence they may have destroyed?” Harpootlian asked Worley.
“I have no idea,” Worley replied.
“No, you don’t,” Harpootlian shot back.
How closely prosecutors can tie Murdaugh to the crime scene remains key to the case.
“There’s no direct evidence. There’s no eyewitnesses. There’s nothing on camera. There’s no fingerprints. There’s no forensics tying him to the crime. None,” Harpootlian told jurors.
The trial continues.