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Tears, first responders didn't see, flow during week one of Alex Murdaugh murder trial

Alex Murdaugh cries during second day of testimony in his double murder trial
Grace Beahm Alford
The Post and Courier/Pool
Alex Murdaugh becomes emotional during testimony in his murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Week one testimony details gruesome crime scene and Murdaugh's behavior through police video.

Fog closed in on Highway 64 into Walterboro like heavy drapes, the night before jury selection began in a case so cloaked in mystery people worldwide are trying to peer in.

“It’s a journey. There are a lot of aspects to this case,” said prosecutor Creighton Waters during opening arguments Wednesday.

“But like a lot of things that are complicated, we start to put them all together, piecing them like a puzzle. All the sudden, a picture emerges.”

Scattered pieces of Alex Murdaugh’s life are being pulled together following his dramatic fall from grace. The once prominent attorney from an influential, storied legal family has lost his right to practice law and his freedom.

The 54-year-old has been in jail since October 2021, accused of stealing nearly $9 million from colleagues and former clients, including the family of his late housekeeper. But it’s charges he killed his wife and son that take him to the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro for at least three weeks to stand trial.

And, until now, the prosecution has been stoically silent about its case.

The prosecution week one

Creighton Waters Opening arguments.jpg
Joshua Boucher
The State/Pool
Prosecutor Creighton Waters delivers his opening statement in Alex Murdaugh’s trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Wednesday, January 25, 2023. Joshua Boucher

This week, opening arguments and two days of testimony revealed a gruesome crime scene at the family’s Moselle Road property in Islandton the night of June 7, 2021.

The bodies of both 52-year-old wife Maggie and 22-year-old son Paul were found outside, face down, awash with blood after being shot multiple times with two different weapons: Paul, a shotgun; Maggie, a rifle. The blast to Paul’s head exploded his skull leaving his brain at his feet.

There was so much blood, prosecutors questioned how Murdaugh, who reported finding the bodies, could have touched them and not been covered in it.

They played uncut 9-1-1 calls of Murdaugh telling dispatchers he’d tried to get a pulse from Paul and Maggie. They also showed jurors a videotaped interview with investigators in which he says he attempted to roll Paul over.

Law enforcement who've take the witness stand so far, have reported seeing no blood on his clothing.

Colleton County Sheriff’s Office Detective Laura Rutland testified she had taken note of Murdaugh's clean clothes and was asked by the prosecution if it looked as though he'd changed them.

“He is sweating, and they are dry. So, I'd say yes," answered Rutland.

In that same videotaped interview with investigators, Murdaugh also says he accidentally knocked Paul’s cell phone from his pocket.

That phone could play a crucial role as Waters says a video Paul sent to a friend from it captures Murdaugh’s voice with he and Maggie at the dog kennels just 20 minutes before the murders. Murdaugh has long claimed he wasn't there but visiting his mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

“He was at the murder scene with the two victims,” Waters told jurors. “And more than just over four minutes later… Paul’s phone locks forever.”

Body cam video from the first officer on the scene was also shared with jurors. Sgt. Daniel Greene with the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office says within minutes of meeting Murdaugh and without asking, the man who had just lost his wife and son offered an explanation.

“This is a long story. My son was in a boat wreck,” Murdaugh can be heard telling Sgt. Greene. “He’s been getting threats… I know that’s what this is.”

Paul Murdaugh had been charged with a deadly boating accident in Beaufort County in 2019 in which he was accused of driving drunk. The victim’s family sued Murdaugh.

When asked about Murdaugh’s demeanor the night of the murders, Sgt. Greene described him as acting “nervous, anxious and upset” but said he didn’t see him cry. Neither did other first responders on the scene.

Murdaugh could be seen sobbing several hours later in that videotaped interview with investigators played for jurors and released to the media.

Murdaugh and his defense

Harpootlian opening arguments.jpg
Joshua Boucher
The State/Pool
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian delivers opening statement in Alex Murdaugh’s trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Wednesday, January 25, 2023.

Tall and thin, Murdaugh often rocked back and forth in his seat during testimony. He appeared intensely engaged in his defense but at times stared vacantly ahead. And during graphic testimony about the condition of Paul and Maggie’s bodies, Murdaugh repeatedly dropped his head as his face went red and his eyes welled up.

The tears first responders had not seen, flowed.

Murdaugh’s defense team struck back in cross examination and opening arguments. Regarding the lack of blood on his client’s clothing, attorney Jim Griffin questioned how Murdaugh could have cleaned up so quickly before checking on his mother. He also pointed out investigators had a search warrant for the family's home that night and could have looked for evidence of blood then.

Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian argues there is no direct evidence Murdaugh “butchered” his wife and son. He reminded jurors they have to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“There are no eyewitnesses. There is nothing on camera," said Harpootlian. "There’s no forensics tying him to the crime. None."

And Harpootlian says there's no motive.

He calls the prosecution’s allegations Murdaugh murdered his family members to gain sympathy and divert attention from his alleged financial crimes, ludicrous.

Harpootlian says Murdaugh had a loving relationship with his wife and son, adding he has video from just an hour before the murders of Murdaugh and Paul bonding over trees they’d planted on the property.

“That he executes him a brutal fashion- not believable.”

Buster in court.jpg
Joshua Boucher
The State/Pool
Buster Murdaugh, only surviving son of Alex Murdaugh, wipes away tears as witnesses are called in Alex Murdaugh’s trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Thursday, January 26, 2023. Joshua Boucher/

Murdaugh’s family, including his son Buster, have been sitting behind him in court. They’re faces softened as Harpootlian described the video of Murdaugh and Paul spending time together. But they grimaced and cried during graphic testimony.

Visibly absent in the courtroom- a portrait of Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph ‘Buster’ Murdaugh Jr. The long-time solicitor was part of a family dynasty of solicitors dating back nearly a century.

The left, back wall where his likeness typically looks out over the courtroom is bare.

Outside the courthouse, journalists, book writers, bloggers and the curious stricken public, pack the sidewalks. French Vanity Fair reporter Arthur Cerf says he made the overseas trip because interest in Murdaugh’s alleged crimes is growing in his country.

“I think there is something universal to it about how power brings impunity and corruption and finally violence," said Cerf.

To those who live in Colleton County, the Murdaughs are no mystery. The name is prominent, and many have personal or professional connections to the family whose law firm is located in the neighboring town of Hampton.

There are whispers and knowing nods but also an abundance of kindness, even toward strangers who've turned this tight knit community into a fishbowl. Many say they want their community to be seen, only for something brighter.

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.