Alex Murdaugh trial: Power, privilege, and the downfall of a dynasty

Alex Murdaugh at his murder trial

The Murdaugh family ruled their rural region of South Carolina for many generations before Alex Murdaugh was charged with the brutal killings of his wife and son. What happened next was the stunning dismantling of a life of privilege and power, revealing theft, drug use, and a botched hitman suicide plot.

You may find some language offensive.

In the fifth week of his murder trial, Alex Murdaugh took the stand.

Two different versions of Mr. Murdaugh testified in his own defense over the course of almost ten hours in the crowded courtroom in Walterboro, South Carolina. One had a thin, lilting voice and appeared exhausted. After spending months in prison, his once-bulky frame had shrunk, and his clothes hung loosely. He cried as he rocked back and forth and shook his head side to side.

The other appeared to be much more like the intelligent, charming, and once-powerful player in the state's exclusive legal scene that other witnesses had described. This Mr. Murdaugh spoke directly to the jury while remaining calm and in command.

What a complicated web we spin, he said to them.

A painting of his namesake, his great-grandfather Rudolph "Buster" Murdaugh, which had been removed for the trial, was now covered by a rectangular-shaped sun stain on the back wall of the courtroom.

The Murdaugh family ruled over the local prosecutor's office and the private law firm that made them wealthy for nearly a century in this southern region of South Carolina, a flat expanse of marshlands, palm trees, and houses with porches.

However, a string of bizarre and tragic occurrences since the brutal murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in June 2021, have contributed to Mr. Murdaugh's spectacular fall from grace. The 54-year-old has refuted accusations that the murders were a desperate attempt to hide years of financial wrongdoing. He did, however, confess to several other offenses while testifying, including fraud, embezzlement, and a staged assassination attempt.

One of the nation's most keen eyes are now on the trial. It has exposed what some see as the Murdaugh family's allegedly unchecked power in their small town and led to the downfall of a local dynasty.

Bill Nettles, a former US attorney for South Carolina, said, "This is what happens when ordinary people have no checks and balances.".

"And he was not subject to any checks and balances. " .

A photo of the Murdaugh family shown in court
The Murdaugh family's picture was displayed in court. Maggie and Paul (centre) were fatally shot on 7 June, 2021.

Knowing the Murdaugh surname is equivalent to knowing South Carolina's Lowcountry. The Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of the state was presided over by three generations of Murdaugh men from 1920 to 2006, marking the longest period of family rule in American history.

Mr. Nettles declared, "They were the law.".

The Murdaughs spent even more time working at the family-founded law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED), accumulating a modest fortune and expanding their dominance throughout the Lowcountry. By all accounts, their business was the best in a locale where personal injury firms prospered.

"They could get a verdict that would exceed the norm dramatically," said South Carolina lawyer Joe McCulloch.

"And when I say exceed the norm, they could make a $100,000 case settle for $1,000,000," the speaker continued. " .

Their judicial district earned a reputation as a haven for plaintiffs. Corporations reportedly avoided the area entirely if they could.

Locals claimed that the Murdaughs' familiar faces to juries served as a reliable advantage during the trial.

According to South Carolina-based malpractice lawyer Eric Bland, "when people graduated high school, they would send gifts; they paid for funerals, and they sent flowers to people who were in the hospital.". "They spread goodwill throughout the town. ".

The Murdaughs established themselves as the de facto authorities of the Lowcountry from their two offices in Hampton. Even though their influence did not extend across the entire state, it was substantial nonetheless. Residents claimed that the Murdaugh family held absolute power in the small, isolated community where they lived.

One waitress in town who also declined to give her name claimed that "we all knew them" and that she didn't want to "get in trouble" for speaking out of turn. She also objected to being videotaped. You'll just have to keep this in mind, she said. They were powerful. They went too far with it. ".

The dog kennels at Moselle, where Paul and Maggie were killed
In June 2021, at the Murdaugh family's remote hunting estate, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed.

Jeanne Seckinger, a former chief financial officer of PMPED, provided an account of Alex Murdaugh's strategy as a lawyer during the third week of the trial. She described it as "basically the art of bullshit.".

The reason for Mr. Murdaugh's success, according to Ms. Seckinger, "was not his work ethic, but rather his ability to build relationships and manipulate people into settling with him and clients into liking him. ".

Because of his hard work, he amassed millions of dollars that supported his family's lavish lifestyle, which included a speedboat, a beach house, a sizable 1,700-acre hunting estate called Moselle, and a staff to help. Although success seemed to come naturally to Murdaugh, it was actually a cover for years of theft, fraud, and embezzlement.

Mr. Murdaugh tearfully confessed on the witness stand in Walterboro to stealing $3.7m (£3m) from settlements intended for his clients in 2019 alone. He claimed it was wrong, but he was in a desperate situation because his addiction had drained his finances.

State prosecutors painted a picture of almost unbelievable levels of fraud and theft, as well as a perpetrator who was confident in his immunity. They claim that Mr. Murdaugh stole indiscriminately from clients and coworkers, the young and old, the disabled and the ill. He is accused of almost 100 different financial offenses.

Ms. Seckinger testified that she had observed small irregularities and yellow flags in Mr. Murdaugh's files for years. But she added that the company was a "brotherhood.". They had faith in him. ".

Another person who trusted Mr. Murdaugh was Tony Satterfield. Tony and his brother were advised by Mr. Murdaugh to file a wrongful death lawsuit against him and that his home insurance would cover damages when Mr. Satterfield's mother, Gloria, who had worked as the Murdaughs' housekeeper for 20 years, died following a workplace accident. Even a lawyer to assist in suing him was suggested by him.

The Satterfields didn't receive a single penny from the $4.3m that two of Mr. Murdaugh's insurance policies paid out. They had no idea that the dispute had been resolved. As he acknowledged in court, Alex Murdaugh had taken it.

The malpractice attorney who defended the Satterfields in their case against Mr. Murdaugh, Eric Bland, said, "I feel like if someone had paid closer attention, they would have figured this out.".  "But those kids revered the Murdaughs, they trusted him. " .

Spectators inside the Alex Murdaugh trial
Americans are traveling great distances to attend the trial because it has the nation in its grip.

Another fatal accident occurred near the Murdaugh family one year after Gloria Satterfield's demise. However, the tragedy this time, according to the prosecution, would present a problem that Alex Murdaugh could not handle.

On the night of February 24, 2019, late in the evening, Paul Murdaugh was on board the family boat when it crashed into a bridge, sending three of the six occupants — all young adults — flying into the chilly water below. Mallory Beach, age 19, was one of them. Her body was found days later in a marsh some distance away.

All the other passengers agreed that Paul had been operating the vehicle at the time of impact. The 19-year-old Murdaugh's blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, according to a blood test.

Taken together, witness testimony from the night renders an image of Mr Murdaugh hellbent on insulating his son. They claimed that he moved around the room, attempting to communicate with the teenagers. He appeared to be trying to "orchestrate something," according to a nurse.  One passenger, Connor Cook, said in a deposition he was told by Mr Murdaugh "to keep my mouth shut".  He was scared, he said, "them being who they are".

On the stand last week, Mr Murdaugh called any claims that he had "fixed witnesses" or influenced any part of the boat wreck investigation "totally false".

The Murdaugh family
Alex Murdaugh is accused of killing both his youngest son Paul and his wife Maggie.

Still, to those in the Lowcountry, the boat crash was seen "as a test of the system", said Mandy Mattney, a reporter based in South Carolina who has led coverage of the Murdaughs since 2019. Everyone in Hampton genuinely thought Paul wouldn't be prosecuted. " .

But a few months later, Paul was accused of three crimes, including drunken boating that caused a fatality. He entered a not guilty plea to the charges but passed away before going to trial.

Looking back, it might have been the turning point in Alex Murdaugh's life.

The family of Mallory Beach hired Mark Tinsley as their attorney to represent them in the potentially multimillion dollar wrongful death lawsuit against Mr. Murdaugh.

Mr. Murdaugh stated that he was poor. During the trial this month, Mr. Tinsley said, "I didn't believe it.".

In order to compel Mr. Murdaugh to disclose his finances, Mr. Tinsley filed a motion. The date of the hearing was set for June 10, 2021. The information would make his years of corporate fraud public.

The fuse was lit, according to Mr. Tinsley.

Alex Murdaugh testifies
In relation to his wife and son's slayings, Mr. Murdaugh has entered a not-guilty plea.

On 7 June 2021, three days before the hearing on his finances was scheduled, Alex Murdaugh called 911. He claimed that his son Paul and wife Maggie had both been shot.

Paul and Maggie had been killed in retaliation for the boat accident, according to Mr. Murdaugh's theory, by the time the first deputy of the sheriff arrived at Moselle.

Regarding his son, Mr. Murdaugh said, "He's getting threats.".  "I know that's what it is. " .

He was widely believed in the Lowcountry, and after Paul passed away, the wrongful death lawsuit was abandoned.

But three months later, Mr Murdaugh called 911 again, this time to report that he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural road.  He later admitted to arranging a hit on himself so that his surviving son, Buster, could collect on his life insurance.  As the ploy fell apart, his firm disclosed they had pushed him out just the day before the incident over alleged embezzlement.

The murders of Maggie and Paul remained a mystery for months as a result of the lack of information provided by the authorities regarding potential suspects or a possible motive.

Crowds line up to see the Alex Murdaugh trial

For more than a month now, Alex Murdaugh's downfall has drawn early morning crowds to the Walterboro courthouse, a line too long to fit inside.  Upstairs, in the courtroom's cool air, spectators in suits and sundresses have filled row after row of the dark wooden pews that line the room.  At times, the mood has felt strangely like a church reception, Mr Murdaugh's brother and son milling around, offering handshakes and tepid smiles.

The prosecution and defence will present closing arguments in the coming days before the jury retires to consider its verdict.

Here in the Lowcountry, many said they believed Alex Murdaugh was at the end of the line.

But for decades, the Murdaugh family has made an ally out of juries, walking out of courtrooms with the judgments that built their fortunes and cemented their influence.

Alex Murdaugh's fate will be decided the same way, perhaps a final test of his influence in a case where all the evidence is circumstantial - there was no murder weapon found, no blood on Mr Murdaugh's t-shirt that night, no eyewitnesses to the killings.

And his decision to testify - both an unusual move and a legal risk - was perhaps a testament to an enduring self-belief, a confidence in his ability to sway people, like he has done for years.

"I can promise you I would hurt myself before I would hurt one of them," he said last week.  "Without a doubt. ".

.  Then, in July 2022, Mr Murdaugh was arrested in connection with the killings

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