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Murdaugh murder trial begins Monday

Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh appears in a jail mugshot in Hampton County, S.C. following his arrest for an alleged roadside shooting. Sept. 16, 2021
Hampton County jail
Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh appears in a jail mugshot in Hampton County, S.C. following his arrest for an alleged roadside shooting. Sept. 16, 2021

54-year-old Alex Murdaugh stands trial in Colleton County beginning Monday charged with the shooting deaths of his wife Maggie and son Paul.

WALTERBORO, S.C.- Known for its antique shops, sweet tea and lazy, weekend getaways, Walterboro is often called the “Front Porch of the Lowcountry”. But beginning Monday, the small town of 5,500 people will overflow with throngs of journalists as it transforms into a front row seat for an unprecedented court proceeding, the double murder trial of Richard Alex Murdaugh.

The once prominent attorney is well known for his family’s legal dynasty, a long line of solicitors who have wielded power in the 14th district for roughly a century. In fact, it was Murdaugh’s great-grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr., who founded the personal injury law firm that would eventually accuse the 54-year-old now disbarred attorney of stealing money.

The Murders

But it was the 9-1-1 call Murdaugh made the night of June 7, 2021, that thrust his family’s locally well-known name into the national spotlight. Murdaugh appeared to sob and try to catch his breath as he told dispatchers he’d found the bullet riddled bodies of his 52-year-old wife Maggie and their 22-year-old son Paul at the family’s sprawling estate on Moselle Road in Islandton.

“I need an ambulance immediately,” Murdaugh said. “My wife and son have been shot badly.”

It was later revealed Maggie was shot five times with a rifle while Paul was shot twice with a shotgun including a blast to the head.

Initially, SLED investigators said little, except the public was not in any immediate danger. That fueled speculation police had a suspect. Perhaps it was Murdaugh or maybe someone who held a grudge against the family.

A case involving Murdaugh’s son Paul was scheduled to be heard a couple of days after his murder. He’d been charged with a deadly, boating under the influence crash in Beaufort County in 2019 and the family of the victim, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, was suing Alex Murdaugh and others. The hearing was cancelled following Paul and Maggie’s murders.

The Alleged Roadside Shooting

But three months after the Murdaugh murders in Colleton County, police had yet to name a suspect when another 9-1-1 call from Alex Murdaugh raised eyebrows. This time, a calm Murdaugh told the dispatcher something terrible had happened when he stopped to change a tire over Labor Day weekend.

“When I turned my back, they tried to shoot me,” Murdaugh said.

The dispatcher then asked if Murdaugh had been shot and he said, “yes”.

But later in court, through his attorneys, Murdaugh admitted to trying to stage his own death so his surviving son, Buster, could collect $10 million in life insurance money. During his bond hearing, defense attorney Dick Harpootlian offered another revelation about Murdaugh.

“He’s had a significant opioid addiction which has led him into some financial issue and there’s no question into this situation where he finds himself charged,” Hapootlian said.

Financial Crimes Charges

Over the next year, Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes began to unravel. Charge after charge, nearly 100 in all, accused Murdaugh of stealing nearly $9 million from his family law firm and former clients, including the relatives of his late housekeeper.

Police say their investigation into the murders prompted them to reopen Gloria Satterfield’s case in which she died in 2018 following a trip and fall incident at the Murdaugh home. They’re also looking again at the mysterious death of Stephen Smith. The body of the 19-year-old was found in the middle of a rural road in 2015 amid speculation he had somehow been involved with the Murdaughs.

But it was the murders of Paul and Maggie that Murdaugh was charged with last summer. He pleaded not guilty.

Pre-trial Motions

State prosecutor Creighton Waters argued recently in a pre-trial hearing Murdaugh killed his loved ones to gain sympathy and distract from his alleged financial crimes that were about to come to light the day of the murders.

“The day of reckoning was upon him,” said Waters. “He was out of cards to play after he’s played every card he could for ten years.”

Murdaugh’s defense team called the prosecution’s alleged motive illogical.

“There’s no evidence of any life insurance,” said Jim Griffin. “There’s no evidence Maggie and Paul knew of any alleged financial improprieties involving Alex.”

Days before the trial begins, both sides continue to argue over what evidence should be allowed in court.

The defense calls into serious question blood spatter reportedly found on Murdaugh’s white t-shirt the night of the murders, saying the expert witness who found it, originally reported there was none. The prosecution, meantime, does not want the state to point to other possible suspects during the trial, including Curtis Smith an alleged accomplice of Murdaugh's in the roadside incident.

Murdaugh will not be shackled during the trial which begins Monday in Colleton County. He faces life behind bars if convicted. Meantime, a portrait of his grandfather that hangs in the courtroom will be taken down.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.