After six weeks of testimony, including 62 prosecution witnesses and 14 for the defense, including the defendant himself, the closing days in the double-murder trial of Richard “Alex” Murdaugh has resembled a fairytale of dynastic corruption and deep south Gothic horror.
As the last prosecution witness stepped down from a South Carolina courtroom stand on Tuesday, closing the rebuttal phase of the trial, jurors on Wednesday headed off to tour the 1,700-acre country estate where Murdaugh’s wife Maggie and son Paul were found dead on 7 June 2021.
“The state’s position seems to be: let no dead horse go unbeaten,” said Dick Harpootlian, a blustering defense lawyer whose job it has been to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. “This is a process that has got to stop at some point.”
Harpootlian’s remarks came as prosecutors attempted to close off avenues of reasonable doubt in a case some believe may have been shaken by a sloppy investigation by state investigators.
Among the most potentially damaging admissions has been that investigators never searched the defendant’s mother’s house – where Alex Murdaugh is accused of hiding missing murder weapons – and misleading a grand jury about blood spatter on a T-shirt to secure charges against him.
Murdaugh, a now disbarred attorney from a prominent South Carolina family who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder, maintains he found his wife, Maggie, and his younger son, Paul, dead when he returned to the family estate, called Moselle, after visiting his ailing mother on the night of 7 June.
One avenue in the defense’s case is that the murders were committed by other people, and not Alex Murdaugh. The so-called “two-shooter theory” revolves around the trajectory of the shots fired.
The defense claims that a shotgun blast was delivered to the back of Paul’s head. But that could not be, said Dr Ellen Riemer, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, who testified for the prosecution that the shot passed came through the neck and passed out of the back of the head.
The defense has also contended that given the trajectory of the gunshot, Murdaugh was too tall to have fired it.
Other parts of the testimony have been bizarre.
Opposing lawyers got into a discourse about wild hogs to highlight inconsistency in Murdaugh’s testimony last week, in which, perhaps tellingly, Murdaugh did not directly deny killing his wife and son.
“I would never intentionally do anything to hurt either one of them,” Murdaugh said through tears.
During his testimony, Murdaugh said hogs were not typically seen in daylight, so he and his son would not typically carry rifles. The Moselle property, now under contract for $3.9m, has been a central feature of case, with descriptions of its dove fields, swamps and seemingly fruitless efforts to contain the wild hog population of South Carolina’s “low country”.
Ronnie Crosby, Murdaugh’s former law partner, said that people with hogs on their property “always, as a general rule, would take a rifle with them, be it day or night, because they are such nuisances”.
But Crosby conceded, under defense questioning, that he had been angry with Murdaugh for stealing millions from the firm that it was now obligated to pay back. He rejected, however, that anger motivated his testimony. Crosby said his firm was “still counting” the money it will need to repay.
Many of the exchanges, designed to support the state’s contention that Murdaugh is a chronic liar, come after Murdaugh admitted during testimony last week that he had been at the estate’s kennels on the night of the murders, despite previously claiming he had not.
The Murdaugh trial has become something akin to a social event in South Carolina, with some public observers driving from across the state in Charleston, or from Savannah in Georgia, to sit in. The Murdaughs had been for close to a century one of the most powerful families in South Carolina, with close ties to the judiciary and law enforcement.
It has been a dressy affair, with officials turning away visitors improperly attired. A woman was refused entry for wearing spaghetti straps on her dress, and again for a too-tight outfit. She was admitted after a third change of clothing.
After the case is handed to jurors following closing arguments, which could begin later on Wednesday, a verdict could come any time. Under South Carolina law, a guilty defendant is not sentenced at a later date: it is delivered there and then, adding to the sense of impending drama.
“There are a lot of things he did wrong, but no matter what the verdict is, I don’t know that we’ll ever know the truth,” said Brandy Teal, who had driven three hours to sit in the gallery.
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