Lessons about the human psyche from the Murdaugh trial
Disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh has now been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in a trial that attracted intense public attention to the Southern depiction of privilege and deceit.
Investigations stemming from the June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of Murdaugh's wife and son revealed that the prominent South Carolina lawyer stole millions of dollars from largely poor clients' settlements and staged an attempt on his life to secure his surviving son a $12 million life insurance payout, according to authorities.
In the process, true crime enthusiasts, concerned onlookers and many others found the latest subject of their fascination in the yearslong unraveling of a mystery that jurors weighed in a six-week trial that culminated in a deliberation that took less than three hours. Murdaugh, 54, received life in prison at a Friday morning sentencing.
Experts say the small town saga's transformation into an international point of intrigue highlights insights into the human psyche: People are drawn to events that inform their perceptions of threat. And amid the commotion of the trial, some legal observers have found an important opportunity for education.
Coltan Scrivner, a researcher at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark, said a human desire to avoid getting duped has developed into a natural curiosity about signs of danger. Those cues, he said, are especially strong when the schemes involve the rich and powerful like the Murdaugh family.
"We put it in our rolodex of possible simulations of what could happen in a bad situation," Scrivner said.
Amanda Vicary, a psychology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said the obsession with true crime is largely driven by women interested in its self-protective lessons. Many followers might subconsciously ask themselves what they need to look for in their own lives, she said.
Plus, the Murdaugh case's many aspects — mystery, forensics, family, finances — have appealed to a variety of interests.
"Most popular true crime stories might only have one or two of those elements," Vicaray said. "It has a little something for everything going on right now."
Stephanie Truesdale, an upstate South Carolina teacher whose crocheted dolls of prominent figures in the case went viral on social media, said the combination of a wealthy family's fall from grace and the many unexpected developments piqued her attention from the start. She said she's been particularly interested to see how the state's legal system treats "one of their own."
Although the dolls garnered praise, some other displays of public interest in the case have been less well-received. Several trespassers were found last weekend taking selfies outside the feed room where Paul Murdaugh died, according to defense attorney Dick Harpootlian. He described it as the "most distasteful thing" he had ever seen.
"If people are really paying attention, they could really learn a lot from what's going on right now, instead of just the more gruesome aspect of things," Truesdale said.
Sarah Ford, the legal director for the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network, said she has found that people want to better understand legal processes in connection to the case. She and former state lawmaker Mandy Powers Norrell began hosting Twitter spaces to answer questions about the daily proceedings. Ford said they recently drew 600 people for an hourlong YouTube Live conversation.
For Ford, the trial has spurred conversations that can change common misconceptions about crime. People might be shocked that someone could be accused of killing their wife and son, but the case has raised awareness of issues such as the prevalence of domestic violence, she said.
Although Ford recognized the importance of community engagement, she also had a word of caution: "You don't want this to be something that takes over someone's life as entertainment. Because it's not. These are real people. These are real crimes. These have true, chilling, tragic effects for real people."
It's not the first time a South Carolina double murder trial has reverberated so widely. Susan Smith was sentenced to life in prison for the drowning deaths of her two infant children in 1994.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, who was the lead prosecutor in the Smith case, said he thinks people are drawn to the Murdaugh saga because of its "truth is stranger than fiction" aspects.
"It's like a soap opera, but it's really happening with real people," said Pope, adding, "This is not entertainment. It is a tragedy and lives were lost."
Pope said the Murdaugh case has offered an opportunity to educate the public about the justice system. As an analyst on Court TV during the trial, Pope said today's gavel-to-gavel coverage can help viewers reach their own conclusions and understand the legal system's "positives" and its "warts."
Streaming services have certainly taken notice. Discovery released a three-part series a year after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed, HBO Max launched a three-part documentary in November and Netflix last week released "Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal" for U.S. audiences, with the filmmakers telling Vanity Fair they unearthed additional crimes in the process.
A bevy of 100 other charges including financial crimes — for which lead prosecutor Creighton Waters drew many admissions of guilt last week — have yet to go to trial.
For many South Carolinians, the interest comes from a strong desire to see justice served to a well-connected man who has only recently acknowledged lies and abuses of power that long went unchecked.
In addition to the intense online and media attention the case received, it also attracted crowds outside the courthouse since it began on Jan. 25, including several dozen people who gathered there Thursday morning. Among them was the Rev. Raymond Johnson, a civil rights activist who carried a sign reading "JUSTICE COMING SOON" and who led others in a prayer.
Bill Nettles, the former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, said he wishes every defendant's liberty received the same attention and resources. "We should all strive for a world where the effort to take anybody's liberty gets the same scrutiny as this case," he said.
In a nod to the spectacle of the case, prosecutor Creighton Waters said after the guilty verdicts that his own team of lawyers had referred to it as their "Super Bowl."
"Y'all saw all of these folks behind me doing amazing work. And I can't be prouder of a team in my life," he said during a news conference. "We called this our Super Bowl, and not because of the media attention, but just because of the effort that we knew that we would have to put into this." ___
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.