Murdaugh Goes on Trial Over Murder of Wife and Son

The trial of Alex Murdaugh begins on Monday, the centerpiece of a twisted tale of two fatal shootings and the downfall of a South Carolina legal dynasty.

A tall man, his hands in shackles, wearing a blue prison uniform and a surgical mask.
Alex Murdaugh being escorted out of the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., in July 2022 after pleading not guilty to having murdered his wife and one of his two sons in June 2021.Credit...Tracy Glantz/The State, via Associated Press

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WALTERBORO, S.C. — The walls were caving in on Alex Murdaugh.

It was the spring of 2021, and Mr. Murdaugh, a South Carolina lawyer whose prominence was rooted in the legal dynasty that his family had built over generations, was about to see that legacy come crashing down.

His law firm was asking him about missing money, and he was being pressured in court to disclose his finances, potentially unraveling what prosecutors say were yearslong schemes to steal millions of dollars from clients and colleagues. Then, on June 7, 2021, Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and the younger of his two sons, Paul Murdaugh, 22, were shot to death on the family’s expansive hunting property in a rural corner of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

The killings went unsolved for more than a year before Mr. Murdaugh was charged with two counts of murder and disbarred, a stunning downfall for a man whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all served as the top prosecutor for a vast swath of the state.

On Monday, the trial of Mr. Murdaugh, 54, began with jury selection in a case that has combined a brutal crime with a novelistic tale of the unraveling of a powerful family. It could take several days to whittle down the jury pool to find 12 suitable jurors. The vast majority of those interviewed on Monday said they were aware of the case, and some said they would be unable to set aside opinions they had already formed about whether Mr. Murdaugh was guilty.

Prosecutors in the office of South Carolina’s attorney general are expected to argue at trial that Mr. Murdaugh was facing a raft of crises, including suspicions from his law firm about his finances and a lawsuit over a fatal boat crash involving Paul Murdaugh. They say Alex Murdaugh felt so trapped by his deceptions that he decided the only way to escape further scrutiny was to gain sympathy by making it appear as if an unknown assailant had killed his wife and son.

Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers, meanwhile, plan to argue that investigators tried to pin the crime on him from the start, failing to seriously consider other possible attackers. They will also likely argue that the state has no physical evidence proving that Mr. Murdaugh committed the murders. The defense contends that the physical evidence prosecutors have disclosed publicly — a shirt Mr. Murdaugh wore on the night of the crime — should be kept out of the proceedings because an expert’s analysis of possible bloodstains on it was shoddy.

The trial comes nearly 600 days after the deaths of Mr. Murdaugh’s wife and son, and follows a wave of revelations about the family and its patriarch. The twists and turns have captivated people across the country, from residents in the small town of Hampton, S.C., where the Murdaugh dynasty was built, to devotees of true-crime mysteries and podcasts far from South Carolina.

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An entrance to the estate in Islandton, S.C., where Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son were found shot to death.Credit...Travis Dove for The New York Times

The killings prompted the authorities and the news media to conduct a concerted audit of all things Murdaugh, including his financial dealings, his family’s history in the region and the deaths of several people in his orbit. In addition to the two murder counts, the state has brought 99 other charges against Mr. Murdaugh in an array of separate indictments, alleging he defrauded victims — many of whom were trusting clients — out of about $8.8 million.

“There’s a thousand rabbit holes, and there’s a rabbit in every one of them,” said Mark B. Tinsley, a lawyer who is suing Mr. Murdaugh in the boat crash case. “He had a lot of balls in the air that he was juggling. And I’m convinced that there are things that we still don’t know.”

The police have opened an investigation into the 2018 death of a housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died after falling on steps at Mr. Murdaugh’s home on the same property where his wife and son were later killed. Her death was long considered an accident, but the case was reopened when, after the murders, it was revealed that Mr. Murdaugh had pocketed millions of dollars in settlement funds that were supposed to have gone to Ms. Satterfield’s relatives. South Carolina’s state police agency said last year that it was exhuming her body.

The state police also opened a new investigation into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old man who had been found along a road about 10 miles from the Murdaugh home and who was thought to have been hit by a truck. The police have not accused anyone of wrongdoing in Mr. Smith’s or Ms. Satterfield’s death.

Amid the intense attention on Mr. Murdaugh, prosecutors say his former law firm discovered a check in Mr. Murdaugh’s office in September 2021 that was supposed to be addressed to the firm but was instead made out to him. That finding led the firm, which was founded by his great-grandfather more than a century ago, to discover more financial misconduct by Mr. Murdaugh and to ask for his resignation, which he gave.

The next day, in another bizarre twist, Mr. Murdaugh claimed that he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural road by somebody who drove by while he was alone, changing a flat tire. He was taken to a hospital, but his story soon began to fall apart. It turned out that he had been on the side of the road with a friend and distant cousin, Curtis Edward Smith.

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Curtis Edward Smith outside his home in Walterboro, S.C., in 2021.Credit...Travis Dove for The New York Times

The police said a suicidal Mr. Murdaugh had asked Mr. Smith to shoot and kill him, believing that if his death were to be ruled a murder, rather than a suicide, his older son, Buster Murdaugh, could collect on his life insurance policy. Medical records showed that Mr. Murdaugh had been shot in the back of the head but that he had been able to call for help afterward. Mr. Smith, who has said the gun went off as he tried to keep Mr. Murdaugh from killing himself, was charged with several crimes, including assault. Both he and Mr. Murdaugh were charged with insurance fraud.

In the wake of the shooting, Mr. Murdaugh disclosed that he had long been addicted to painkillers and said that he was going to seek help at a rehabilitation center. But his stay there was short-lived. About a month later, in October 2021, he was charged with stealing from the family of Ms. Satterfield, the housekeeper, and has been in jail ever since — unable to make bail as the fraud charges have piled up.

Mr. Murdaugh has admitted to owing several people money, including Ms. Satterfield and his brother, but has said he had nothing to do with the killing of his wife and son. Since Mr. Murdaugh was charged in their deaths in July, his lawyers, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, have pushed to hold a trial as soon as possible. Mr. Harpootlian, who is also a Democratic state senator, said they wanted their client acquitted quickly so that police could find the “real killer.”

At one court hearing in September, he said the only violence Mr. Murdaugh had ever taken part in was the botched suicide attempt on the side of the road.

Mr. Murdaugh has said that at about 9 p.m. on the night of the crime he drove from the hunting property to visit his mother, who was with a nurse assistant, and then he returned about an hour later to find the gruesome crime scene. He called 911, frantically telling an operator that his wife and son had been shot near the property’s dog kennels. “I’ve been up to it now — it’s bad,” he said on the call. Investigators have said that Maggie Murdaugh was shot with a rifle, while Paul Murdaugh was shot with a shotgun.

Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers, in a flurry of legal motions, have alleged that the police put pressure on an outside expert, whom they describe in one instance as “scientifically illiterate,” to change his conclusion about whether blood spatter is on a shirt Mr. Murdaugh was wearing on the night of the killings. They say that the state police then leaked those revised findings to FITS News, a brash online news outlet in the state that has broken a series of stories about the case, to sway public opinion ahead of the trial.

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Buster Murdaugh, center, receiving a hug during the funeral service for his brother, Paul, and mother, Maggie, in June 2021 in Hampton, S.C.Credit...Kacen Bayless/The Island Packet, via Associated Press

The physical evidence could be among the trial’s key issues, if it is admitted. Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers are arguing that the findings of the outside expert, a retired police officer in Oklahoma, should not be admitted into court. They also say that documents turned over by prosecutors in discovery suggest that the areas of the shirt where blood spatter could have been present tested negative for blood.

In a court filing last month, prosecutors laid out their case in the fullest terms yet, saying that a gulf existed between how Mr. Murdaugh portrayed himself and the man he really was: “an allegedly crooked lawyer and drug user who borrowed and stole wherever he could to stay afloat and one step ahead of detection.”

The lead prosecutor, Creighton Waters, wrote that Mr. Murdaugh had “been able to avoid accountability throughout his life” until the pressure became too great on the day of the murders.

Earlier that day, before the murders took place, prosecutors say someone at Mr. Murdaugh’s law firm told him that he needed to immediately account for a missing fee payment. And that was not all that was weighing on him.

At the time of the murders, Paul Murdaugh, a student at the University of South Carolina, was facing charges that he had drunkenly crashed a boat into a bridge in February 2019, killing one of his passengers, Mallory Beach.

Mr. Tinsley, the lawyer representing Ms. Beach’s family, had filed a lawsuit against several people, including Alex Murdaugh, and was seeking detailed information about Mr. Murdaugh’s finances. The murders took place three days before a hearing in which a judge was to consider Mr. Tinsley’s request.

If Mr. Murdaugh is found guilty of the murder charges, state law mandates that he be sentenced to at least 30 years in prison, and prosecutors have said they will seek a life sentence. The state attorney general said prosecutors would not seek the death penalty.

The jury selection phase of the trial in Walterboro, a city of about 5,400 people that sits about an hour’s drive inland from the coast, could last for several days. That will be followed by opening statements from each side. The trial is expected to run through Feb. 17. Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers have declined to say whether he will testify.

Among the preparations for the trial was one very specific alteration ordered by Judge Clifton Newman, who is overseeing it: the removal of a portrait of Mr. Murdaugh’s grandfather, a prosecutor, which had been hanging in the courtroom where he will now be tried.