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A jury finds disbarred lawyer Alex Murdaugh guilty in the deaths of his wife and son

The legal team for Alex Murdaugh, center, is presenting their closing argument in his double murder trial on Thursday. He's seen here listening to prosecutor Creighton Waters make his closing arguments at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.
Joshua Boucher
/
The State via AP, Pool
The legal team for Alex Murdaugh, center, is presenting their closing argument in his double murder trial on Thursday. He's seen here listening to prosecutor Creighton Waters make his closing arguments at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.

Updated March 2, 2023 at 9:55 PM ET

A South Carolina jury has found once-prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh guilty on all counts in the deaths of his wife and son.

Jurors deliberated for about three hours before convicting him on two counts of murder and two counts of using a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Murdaugh showed little emotion as the verdicts were read.

Sentencing was set for 9:30 a.m. ET on Friday.

The 54-year-old took the stand in his own defense. He was found guilty of using a rifle to kill his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and a shotgun to kill his son Paul, 22. They died on the night of June 7, 2021, at the family's sprawling Moselle hunting estate in South Carolina's Lowcountry region.

Before he was disbarred, Murdaugh was an influential attorney in South Carolina and belongs to one of the most prominent families in the state.

He faces a sentence of 30 years to life in prison for each murder conviction. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

"Justice was done today," prosecutor Creighton Waters said after the verdict. "It doesn't matter who your family is. It doesn't matter how much money you have or people think you have. It doesn't matter what you think how prominent you are. If you do wrong, if you break the law, if you murder, then justice will be done in South Carolina."

Judge Clifton Newman described the evidence of guilt in the case against Murdaugh as "overwhelming" and denied a request from the defense to declare a mistrial.

The judge's comments concluded the six-week trial, which captivated South Carolina — and the nation. Media coverage included live broadcasts of the trial itself, true crime podcasts and a docuseries on Netflix.

Murdaugh admitted to lying about his alibi, but insisted he did not kill his wife and son.

Earlier in the day, Murdaugh's defense team made its final bid to prevent him from spending decades in prison, delivering their closing argument in the trial of the disbarred South Carolina attorney charged in the murders of his wife and son.

A defense attorney for Murdaugh sought to sow doubt about the work by police and forensics teams, saying they fell far short of preserving evidence from the crime scene. Murdaugh's lies and revisions to his alibi stemmed from paranoia induced by his opiate addiction, the defense insisted.

In response, the prosecution urged the jurors to pay attention to "common sense" and "facts," after hearing an abundance of testimony about Murdaugh's character.

Prosecutors said the once influential lawyer lied to those close to him when he stole millions of dollars from his colleagues and clients and — in an act of desperation, as his financial pressures were mounting — fooled his wife and son, too, when he killed them.

Murdaugh's defense says investigators fabricated evidence

Defense attorney Jim Griffin said law enforcement was biased against Alex Murdaugh from early on — adding that they later fabricated evidence against him. Pulling at threads of the prosecution's case, Griffin said state investigators "failed miserably in investigating this case."

Had the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, done a "competent job" of gathering evidence, Griffin said, Murdaugh would have been excluded from the list of potential suspects long ago.

"Unless we find somebody else, it's gonna be Alex," Griffin said, giving his version of investigators' thinking. Saying his client's opioid habit made him "an easy target for SLED," Griffin added. "They started fabricating evidence against Alex."

SLED took samples from Alex Murdaugh's clothes, but they never took DNA samples off Maggie and Paul's clothes, Griffin said. Once investigators seized on the idea that tests showed high-velocity blood spatter on Alex Murdaugh's T-shirt, he added, they refused to dismiss that idea and pursued it "with vengeance."

But when the state was faced with mixed results and questions over tests of Murdaugh's shirt, Griffin said, they embraced a "Mr. Clean theory," which purported that Murdaugh committed the grisly murders, quickly washed himself off with a hose and got into a golf cart "butt-naked, I guess," to drive back to the house, before leaving to visit his mother.

Griffin accused the agency of a list of failures, saying the state never explained if tests were performed on hair he said was found in Maggie's fingers. He also faulted the way Maggie's phone was secured after it was found on June 8, accusing investigators of not preventing the device from continuously pinging GPS locations — which, he said, eventually overwrote data from the night of the murders.

As for the lies Murdaugh admitted telling, Griffin said his client lied because "that's what addicts do." He added that Murdaugh had "a closet full of skeletons" that he didn't want exposed.

Prosecution says to focus on what is real

Prosecutor John Meadors — a veteran of murder trials, who emerged from retirement to join the state's case earlier this year — delivered the rebuttal closing argument. In a speech rife with dramatic flair, Meadors called on the 12 jurors to look past the lies the trial has exposed, including Murdaugh's fluctuating alibi.

All Murdaugh had done when he testified, Meadors said, was to corroborate that he is a liar.

"That's what's real," Meadors repeated as he urged the jury to focus on the facts of the case, not what he deemed the defense's efforts to undermine them. He repeatedly invoked "credibility and common sense."

Meadors also mocked the defense's theory of what happened that night. If Murdaugh didn't commit the murders, Meadors said, some unknown attacker or attackers would need to know precisely when he was leaving his wife and son at the dog kennels, and to also know that guns would be there to carry out an execution-style killing.

"Does that make any sense whatsoever?" Meadors asked.

He noted that South Carolina law doesn't require the state to prove premeditation or motive in a murder case. But, he added, he believes the motive and other elements of the case against Murdaugh are proven, adding, "Nobody else could've done it."

"Thank God for Bubba," Meadors says of Murdaugh's dog

The prosecutor recalled testimony from a friend of Paul's who said he and Paul shot his .300 Blackout rifle — which prosecutors say was used to kill Maggie — a month or two before the murders. That proves the gun, which has not been located, had recently been at Moselle, Meadors said.

"That's powerful. You can feel it like the rain," he said.

"This is an episode of Columbo, except this is real," Meadors said, adding that just like the killers in that TV detective show, Murdaugh made crucial mistakes.

Meadors concluded by citing what he called "beautiful" and "perfect" testimony that came from the victims: the video Paul took proving his father was lying, and the bullets around Maggie's body that showed the murder weapon was a family gun.

"Paul had that insurance on him," Meadors said of the video, in which Maggie and Alex are heard talking about their dog, Bubba, who snatched a chicken in his mouth near the kennels.

"Thank God for Bubba," Meadors told the jury.

"I think he loved Maggie. I think he loved Paul," Meadors said, referring to Alex Murdaugh. "But you know who he loved more than that?"

When Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes put real pressure of him and threatened his wealthy lifestyle, Meadors said, he showed that he loved himself more. And Murdaugh did whatever he needed to protect himself, he added.

Defense pokes at prosecutors' use of phone data

Griffin replayed the video Paul took in the kennels around 8:44 p.m., minutes before prosecutors say the shooting started. It captured Alex, Maggie and Paul talking about dogs.

"Four minutes later, the state would have you believe that Alex Murdaugh up and blew his son's brains out" and killed his wife, Griffin said.

He also sought to sow doubt about investigators' findings of the time of death, saying that just because Paul's and Maggie's phones locked around 8:49 p.m., that doesn't mean both of them were dead.

Griffin ran through phone data reflecting the minutes after 8:49, laying out a theory in which the slain mother and son might have simply set down their phones at the kennels. Orientation changes and other movements Maggie's phone recorded, he said, might have indicated that she was still holding her own phone — or perhaps that a "bad guy" had it.

Murdaugh would never kill his wife and son, defense says

Griffin replayed witness testimony describing Murdaugh as a loving husband and father. As for the accusations of financial misdeeds that arose in Murdaugh's law firm the morning of June 7, 2021, Griffin insisted it was not different from any other day in the "frenetic" life of Alex Murdaugh.

The pressures on his client have been overblown, Griffin said. When Murdaugh did finally feel pressure, the attorney added, he took steps to end his own life in September, asking his cousin to shoot him.

Griffin began his statement with an overview of the criminal legal system, comparing the trial to an instant-replay review in college football. Despite the charges against Murdaugh, he told jurors, the call on the field — the default position of the law — is that Murdaugh is innocent. It's the prosecution's job, he added, to prove Murdaugh's guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

If the government hasn't met its "high burden" of proof, he added, the jury must find Murdaugh not guilty.

A juror is removed, shortly before deliberations are to begin

As Thursday's court session began, Judge Clifton Newman announced that a juror is being replaced on the panel. The court received a complaint from a member of the public saying the juror, a woman identified only as juror No. 785, had "improper conversations" with people not involved with the case.

Newman thanked the woman for her attentive and positive attitude throughout the case, and the investment of her time. But, he said, she would be replaced so that the integrity of the trial would remain intact.

A light moment then erupted shortly before the juror left, as she said she needed her purse from the other room — along with a dozen eggs that another juror had brought in for everyone on the panel.

"A dozen eggs?" Newman asked.

"You want to leave the eggs or take the eggs?" the judge asked. The juror affirmed that she wanted to take the eggs.

Newman also instructed her to not talk about the case until the trial is over.

The witnesses were murdered, prosecutor said

Prosecutors have built a case against Murdaugh using circumstantial evidence, lacking eyewitnesses, video records or a murder weapon.

"We couldn't bring you any eyewitnesses, because they were murdered," prosecutor Creighton Waters told the jury on Wednesday.

The trial is winding down one week afterMurdaugh took the stand himself, to admit he had lied repeatedly to investigators when he said he wasn't with his wife and son at the dog kennels at Moselle shortly before they died.

In his new version of events, Murdaugh admitted being there, but he said he went back to the house minutes before 9 p.m. — the time prosecutors say the murders took place.

Prosecutor told jurors: Don't let Murdaugh fool you

In his closing argument, Waters stressed to jurors that he thinks one thing was missing from the two days Murdaugh spent testifying. If the new alibi is true, Waters asked, why hadn't Murdaugh voiced any regret that he didn't remain at the kennel, to potentially protect his wife and child?

Jurors have gotten a massive amount of information about Murdaugh's character, from his former law colleagues and clients who said he stole millions of dollars, to the multiple stories about his alibi.

"This defendant has fooled everyone — everyone who thought they were close to him," Waters said. "He fooled Maggie and Paul, too, and they paid for it with their lives. Don't let him fool you, too."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.
Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]