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Scion of South Carolina legal dynasty to face trial in slaying of wife and son

Jurors will soon hear the tale of a disgraced South Carolina blueblood accused of killing his wife and son out of fear that he was about to be exposed in a decadeslong scheme to swindle law clients.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Alex Murdaugh, the once-powerful scion of a Lowcountry legal dynasty, will stand trial Monday in Walterboro on accusations he gunned down his wife and youngest son nearly two years ago at the family’s rural hunting lodge.

The trial is expected to be one of the most closely watched in South Carolina’s history, the climax of a lurid saga that transformed the life of a feared trial lawyer into a macabre morality play amid allegations of corruption, addiction and murder.

Prosecutors say blood spatter evidence, GPS data and a cellphone video all connect Murdaugh to the killings, but it was unclear in the days before trial what evidence would be admitted. Murdaugh’s veteran defense attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, have aggressively challenged the admissibility of the alleged blood spatter found on the shirt Murdaugh wore the night of the killings.

State grand jury chief prosecutor Creigton Waters told Colleton County Judge Clifton Newman at a hearing last month his team did not know whether they would use the blood spatter as evidence. But prosecutors have offered a motive for the killings: The imminent threat of “personal, legal and financial ruin” drove the 54-year-old disbarred attorney to commit the heinous crimes, according to court filings.

Murdaugh shot his loved ones to draw attention away from his own misdealings, prosecutors argue, as multiple investigations threatened to expose the attorney’s decadeslong grift of law clients that netted him nearly $9 million. The case’s roots run deeper than the heinous killings, according to prosecutors, and help explain why a seemingly respectable man might murder his wife and son.

Murdaugh has maintained his innocence since his indictment in July. His defense attorneys requested a speedy trial, arguing investigators were too quick to blame the father for the double homicide.

“Alex wants his family, friends and everyone to know that he did not have anything to do with the murders of Maggie and Paul,” the attorneys said in a statement after his arrest. “He loved them more than anything in the world.”

Murdaugh called 911 the night of June 7, 2021, to report finding the bodies of Maggie Murdaugh and their son, Paul, outside the family’s 1,772-acre hunting estate in unincorporated Colleton County.

“I need the police and ambulance immediately,” he told dispatchers, his voice quivering in the recorded call. “My wife and child have been shot badly.”

State and local investigators swarmed the compound in the days after the killings. The mother and son were found dead near some dog kennels on the property. Maggie Murdaugh, 52, was shot five times with a rifle, while two shotgun blasts ended her 22-year-old son’s life.

Alex Murdaugh awaits the beginning of his bond hearing in the Richland Judicial Center in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Lewis M. Levine, Pool)

The news stunned residents of the nearby town of Hampton, where the Murdaugh clan had established a formidable legal dynasty over the past century. Beginning in 1920, three generations of Murdaughs were successively elected solicitor for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, prosecuting crimes in five counties across the southern part of the state. A portrait of Murdaugh’s grandfather hung on the wall of the courtroom where he was indicted on the murder charges.

In 2006, Randolph Murdaugh III left the solicitor’s job to practice in the family’s law firm – Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick — founded in 1910 by his great-grandfather. There, he worked with his two sons, Alex and Randy, both of whom specialized in personal injury.

PMPED built its reputation on eye-popping awards from suits targeting large corporations. In 2002, Forbes magazine wrote about the firm’s use of a state loophole that allowed South Carolina residents to file their suits against out-of-state companies in any county they pleased, as long as the company did business there. With a sympathetic Hampton County jury hearing its cases, PMPED attorneys could earn a million-dollar award when someone slipped at a big-box store as far away as Greenville.

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Speculation swirled in Hampton and across the state about the shocking killings. Some suspected it had to do with Paul Murdaugh. In 2019, he was charged with operating a boat while intoxicated in a fatal crash that killed a 19-year-old girl. Missteps in the investigation led some to believe the Murdaughs had tipped the scales of justice to shield the young man from punishment. Others claimed the killings were revenge for the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, who was found with his skull smashed in 2015 on a Hampton County road. Authorities ruled the death a hit-and-run accident, but authorities investigated rumors Smith was romantically linked to Alex Murdaugh’s oldest son.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division led the investigation into the double homicide. Authorities were tight-lipped about the case, but later court filings show investigators tested Murdaugh's clothing for gunshot residue and blood in the days after the homicides. A small amount of gunshot residue was found on his shirt, but investigators said it could have gotten there from simply holding a gun, not necessarily firing one. A test for human blood came back negative, according to filings.

Murdaugh’s life would further unravel over the coming months. On Sept. 5, 2021, He called 911 to report a passing motorist shot him as he inspected a tire on the side of a Hampton County road. Murdaugh was taken to the hospital with a superficial head wound while investigators puzzled over whether someone was targeting the prominent family.

Murdaugh would confess days later he was actually injured in a botched suicide plot. He told investigators he arranged for an associate, Curtis “Fast Eddie” Smith, to shoot him so his son could collect from his life insurance policy. Smith, a 61-year-old retired logger and former client of Murdaugh, told authorities he only learned Murdaugh wanted to kill himself when he arrived at the scene. He claimed he tried to wrestle the gun from Murdaugh, but it went off during the scuffle.

Both men were arrested on a slew of charges, including insurance fraud. After his arrest, Murdaugh's defense attorneys revealed their client had been suffering from a decadeslong opioid addiction. Smith was not only Murdaugh’s former client, but also his drug dealer, the attorneys said. After posting bond in the case, Murdaugh was admitted to a Florida rehab facility.

More revelations followed. PMPED released a statement saying that Murdaugh was forced to resign from the family law firm the day before the shooting after it was discovered he was misappropriating funds.

Grand jury indictments and lawsuits filed in the coming months would reveal the staggering scope of the alleged fraud. Authorities say Murdaugh stole more than $8.5 million from legal clients and others who trusted him in a dizzying scheme involving phony bank accounts and well-connected accomplices.

Among Murdaugh’s alleged victims were the children of his longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield. In 2018, the 57-year-old woman died after a reported fall at the family’s home. Murdaugh urged Satterfield’s relatives to sue him for an insurance payout after the death and connected them with his longtime friend and fellow attorney, Cory Fleming, authorities say.

Fleming filed the suit and earned a $4.3 million payout from Murdaugh’s insurance. After attorney’s fees, Satterfield’s sons were due to receive more than $2.7 million. Instead, they received nothing, according to the family’s attorneys.

Similar stories came to light as state prosecutors stacked a dizzying number of charges on the disgraced attorney, who would be disbarred two days before the murder indictments dropped. Fleming and Russell Laffitte, the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank, were both charged in the fraud scheme. Laffitte was convicted at a federal trial in November, while Fleming’s case is still waiting to be heard.

Murdaugh has been jailed in Richland County since October 2021. In recorded phone calls from the facility released last year, the defendant complained about the drab food and unruly inmates, according to The State newspaper. He asked family to put money in his canteen and bragged about trading another inmate for a TV remote. For the South Carolina blueblood, it was a steep fall from his once mighty perch atop Hampton’s high society.

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