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.
Victims had no defensive wounds, prosecutor says
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.”
Murdaugh was ‘hysterical in grief’ after finding bodies, attorney says
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.”