WALTERBORO, S.C. (CN) — A cellphone video. A blue raincoat. A missing rifle.
South Carolina prosecutor Creighton Waters guided jurors through the evidence Wednesday he says proves Alex Murdaugh killed his wife and son in June 2021 at the family’s hunting estate in unincorporated Colleton County.
The veteran prosecutor’s opening statement kicked off what is expected to be one of the most closely watched trials in South Carolina’s history.
Murdaugh is no stranger to courtrooms. The 54-year-old defendant was a successful trial attorney from a prestigious family with deep roots in the Lowcountry before the murders. In the year and a half that followed, he’d be arrested on allegations he hired an associate to kill him in a bizarre insurance fraud plot. Former clients would accuse him of stealing millions from them in a decadeslong legal grift before he went to rehab for what his attorneys described as a severe opioid addiction.
He was arrested, disgraced and disbarred.
Then the double murder charges were filed.
Mechanics, retirees, veterans and homemakers streamed into the two-story white brick courthouse during jury selection to see if they would decide the heinous case. Journalists ringed the courthouse as local police officers stood guard at the building’s entrances.
The Murdaughs are as much a fabric of the Lowcountry as the straggly pines and marshlands. Three generations of Murdaughs controlled the solicitor’s office for the 14th Circuit Court, serving as the top prosecutor for five counties in the state’s southeastern edge. A portrait of Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., typically hangs in the courtroom for the trial, but Judge Clifton Newman ordered it to be removed.
The potential jurors rose near as one when Newman asked if they were familiar with the case. Television news, talk around town, podcasts, documentaries and social media — the Murdaugh case was everywhere. More than a dozen potential jurors in one panel said they had already made up their minds about whether Murdaugh was guilty.
Less than 30,000 people live in Colleton County. It felt like 300 people when the judge asked the locals if they knew anyone tied to the case. One potential juror said he was kin to Alex Murdaugh “down the line.” Another juror married into the Murdaugh family. The Murdaugh family’s former high-powered law firm — Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick — represented one juror in a lawsuit. Another did maintenance work at their Hampton office.
Gray speckled Murdaugh’s red hair. The former veteran attorney looked at ease in the courtroom wearing a white shirt, gray slacks and a dark blue blazer. He absentmindedly chewed on his glasses as he scribbled notes during Tuesday’s jury selection.
Twelve jurors and six alternates were ultimately selected for the trial. Eight are women and four are men, according to Charleston's The Post and Courier. Two of them are persons of color and 10 are white.
They listened Wednesday afternoon as Waters described the crime scene.
Maggie Murdaugh and her son, Paul Murdaugh, were found shot to death the night of June 7, 2021, near dog kennels on the estate’s property. They were shot at close range and neither had defensive wounds — “as if they did not see a threat from their attacker,” the veteran prosecutor suggested.
Murdaugh fired two blasts at Paul, his youngest son, from a 12-gauge shotgun, according to Waters. Buckshot peppered the 22-year-old man’s shoulder. He could have survived, but Murdaugh fired a slug through the young man’s head.
Moments later, Murdaugh opened fire on his 52-year-old wife, he said.
“Pow pow — two shots took her down,” Waters said.
Several more shots followed, including two to the head.
Murdaugh is heard talking on a cellphone video his son recorded only minutes before authorities believe he was killed. The 54-year-old disbarred attorney told investigators he shared a meal with his family, but he left the house before the murders took place.
Murdaugh was spotted about a week later carrying what appeared to be a blue tarp into his parent’s home, Waters said. Authorities searched the residence and found a large blue raincoat, its interior coated with gunshot residue.
Maggie was shot with a .300 blackout rifle. It was one of two the family owned at the time of the murder, but one of them was missing from the estate, Waters said. A state firearm examiner is expected to testify that the recovered rifle fired cartridges found across the property, but he could not say it fired the casings found near the mother's body. The same rifle had chambered all the rounds found on the property, however.
There were no witnesses to the murders and it wasn’t captured on video. But Waters said the significant circumstantial evidence in the case would point the jury to the “inevitable conclusion” that Murdaugh killed his wife and son.
“He was the storm,” Waters said, as heavy rain fell outside the courtroom. “The storm was coming for them.”
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian told his client to stand for the jury.
“This is Alex Murdaugh,” he said. “He was the loving father of Paul and the loving husband of Maggie.”
From the start, Harpootlian said investigators zeroed in on Murdaugh as the killer. It was understandable — Murdaugh armed himself with a shotgun after finding his loved ones dead at the property. But when the evidence did not support their theory, they “pounded a square peg into a round hole," the defense attorney said.
He called the murders a “butchering.” The first blast to hit Paul Murdaugh went under his armpit, suggesting he had his arms raised in surrender. The second shot obliterated his skull, “like a watermelon hit with a sledgehammer,” the defense attorney said.
It was “not believable” that Murdaugh killed his youngest son in such a brutal manner, Harpootlian said. There were no eyewitnesses or forensic evidence — blood or fingerprints — tying Murdaugh to the slayings.
“The ‘facts’ are not that. They are his theories,” Harpootlian said, pointing to Waters. “His conjecture.”
Newman told potential jurors the trial would run at least three weeks. It took him more than 10 minutes Tuesday to read the names of the more than 250 potential witnesses in the case. Russell Laffitte, a former Hampton bank CEO and alleged co-conspirator in Murdaugh’s fraud scheme, may testify. Several Murdaugh family members, including Murdaugh’s oldest son, Buster, could also be called.
Prosecutors are expected to argue Murdaugh gunned down his loved ones in a desperate attempt to keep his own misdeeds hidden. Attorneys representing a 19-year-old girl killed in a boat crash involving Alex Murdaugh were threatening to subpoena the father’s financial records. Meanwhile, Murdaugh’s partners were raising questions over funds missing from the family law firm.
After stealing almost $9 million from former law clients, Murdaugh committed the murders to garner sympathy and draw attention away from the crimes, according to prosecutors.
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