Four weeks of prosecution testimony in the Alex Murdaugh double-murder trial has now finished as the twisting case which has gripped America with its bloody story of Southern Gothic horror winds towards an ending.
After calling more than 60 prosecution witnesses, and with the defense due to present its case next week, the case remains circumstantial, but Murdaugh’s cause has suffered brutally over the past month of gripping courtroom drama.
Yet with no confession, no murder weapons, fingerprint evidence, or eyewitnesses, the defense can still seek to poke enough holes in the state’s case against the 54-year-old disbarred attorney to try and establish reasonable doubt.
Murdaugh – whose family has long held huge power in a slice of rural South Carolina – is accused of the June 2021 killings of his wife Maggie and son Paul, as well as carrying out a bizarre suicide plot three months later.
While the trial in the Colleton county courthouse is focused on the homicide charges – two counts of first-degree murder and two related weapons charges to which Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty – it has begun to suggest a coherent narrative explanation to a swirl of violent incidents in Murdaugh’s orbit.
That includes a roadside shooting hoax Murdaugh enacted a day after partners at his family’s law firm had forced him to resign after discovering funds were missing from the company. He first claimed he’d stopped to fix a flat tire when a man in a truck – “a real nice guy … acted like it” – offered help and then shot him, grazing his head.
“I turned my head and, I mean, boom,” he said in an initial police interview.
Coming soon after the murders of his wife and son, the apparent murder attempt appeared to bolster the idea that someone was out for Murdaugh. It preoccupied an army of armchair mystery sleuths who have followed the saga obsessively. Central to those theories was that Murdaugh’s opioid addiction had created debts with a murderous drug gang.
But it was all a lie – or perhaps a convenient embellishment of some truth. On Friday, the court heard that a month before her murder, Maggie had found oxycodone 30mgs in Murdaugh’s computer bag. The prosecution included in its allegations that Murdaugh spent $50,000 a week on drugs; as his world imploded, he spent two stints in rehabilitation.
“I knew that I was about to lose everything,” Murdaugh, 54, said in a taped interview, when he backtracked on claims he had been the victim of a murder attempt and confessed he had orchestrated a bizarre suicide-for-hire incident.
One by one, prosecutors have presented evidence that the murders of his wife and son at the dog kennels of the family’s country estate were staged as a diversion from an unravelling cascade of Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds – and the suicide plot shared that motivation.
Maggie and Paul’s murders, prosecutors argue, were committed to head off legal disclosures in a wrongful death lawsuit against Paul over his alleged involvement in 2019 boating accident death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Similarly, they say, the subsequent suicide plot was engaged to win a $10m insurance payout for surviving son Buster.
“There’s a symmetry between what happens on the side of the road and what happens on 7 June,” prosecutor Creighton Waters told the court earlier this month. “When the hounds are at the door, when Hannibal is at the gates for Alex Murdaugh, violence happens.”
The introduction of the suicide plot may only be a tributary to the murder charges against Murdaugh that, to most trial observers, have been comprehensively argued by state prosecutors – despite being unable to produce the murder weapons or clothing that could offer physical evidence to the shooter’s estimated 3ft proximity to the victims.
Both victims were facing their assailant, and neither had defensive wounds, suggesting to forensic expert Kenny Kinsey that they knew their executioner.
Prosecutors have also laid out evidence to the court that they believe Murdaugh was at the scene at the time of the killings – at 8.50pm – removed the weapons he used, and constructed an alibi that he was visiting his mother after taking a nap following dinner with his wife and son when the murders were committed.
Extensive phone records, including steps walked before and after the murders, and a video text sent by son Paul of a family dog taken moments before the murders, which contained a background conversation in which Maggie could allegedly be heard referring to her husband by his nickname, have also damaged the defense contention the defendant was not present at at the time of the killings.
Time-stamp, speed and distance-travelled records recovered from Murdaugh’s car would also seem to undercut his alibi.
State investigator David Owen said Murdaugh had only ever been their suspect – a belief that came before his financial misdeeds were uncovered and separately produced 85 criminal charges of fraud, including a diverted multi-million insurance payout to the family of Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh’s housekeeper, who died after “falling” at the family home.
But the trial itself has been punctuated by unexpected twists. On 8 February, the courtroom was cleared due to a bomb threat called into clerks at Colleton county courthouse, allegedly by a South Carolina prison inmate.
Murdaugh’s family were warned by the presiding judge Clifton Newman that they could be thrown out of court after Buster appeared to “flip the bird” at Mark Tinsley, the lawyer for the family of Mallory Beach.
Alongside has been a Covid outbreak among jurors, and a controversial GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Mushell “Shelly” Smith, Murdaugh’s mother’s caregiver, “for her bravery” in testifying that she would be induced to tell investigators that Murdaugh has spent twice as long at his mother’s house on the night of the murders as he had.
With the murder trial expected to last two more weeks, the botched suicide plot could provide the clearest evidence that Murdaugh had been mentally capable of orchestrating a murder – even if the murder in question, after the bloody murders of his wife and son, was in fact his own.
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