Alex Murdaugh trial: The downfall of a dynasty

Alex Murdaugh
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The Murdaugh family ruled their rural part of South Carolina for generations. Then Alex Murdaugh was accused of killing his wife and son brutally. What happened next was shocking: a life of power and privilege fell apart, revealing theft, drug use, and a failed plan for a hitman to kill himself.

Alex Murdaugh took the stand during the fifth week of his murder trial.

When Mr. Murdaugh went to court in Walterboro, South Carolina, to defend himself, he would talk for almost 10 hours. During that time, the courtroom would see two sides of Mr. Murdaugh. One of them seemed tired, and his voice was low and lilting. His clothes were too big for him because he had lost weight while in jail.

The other man seemed a lot more like the man other witnesses had said he was: smart, charming, and once a powerful player in the state’s legal club scene. This Mr. Murdaugh spoke directly to the jury and was calm and in charge.

The Murdaugh family ruled this flat area of marshlands, palm trees, and houses with porches for almost a hundred years. They were in charge of the local prosecutor’s office and a private law firm that made them rich.

But after his wife Maggie and son Paul was brutally killed in June 2021, Mr. Murdaugh’s life went downhill quickly. The 54-year-old man has said he did not commit the murders, which prosecutors say were a desperate attempt to hide decades of wrongdoing with money. But when he was on the stand, he admitted to stealing money, lying, and making up an assassination attempt.

People all over the country are paying close attention to the trial. It has shown how powerful some people think the Murdaugh family is in their small town and brought down a local dynasty in the eyes of some.

To know the Lowcountry of South Carolina, you must know the name, Murdaugh. From 1920 to 2006, three generations of Murdaugh men were the chief prosecutor for the state’s Fourteenth Judicial Circuit. This was the longest time in U.S. history that a family held this position.

Even longer, the Murdaughs worked at the law firm their family started, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED), where they made a small fortune and became the most powerful people in the Lowcountry. From what everyone said, theirs was the best personal injury firm in an area where there were a lot of them.

Their court system became known as a haven for people who wanted to sue. As a result, companies that could have avoided it did not do business in the area.

Locals said that the Murdaughs were well-known to the juries, which was a reliable advantage at trial.

The Murdaughs became the Lowcountry’s unofficial leaders from their two offices in Hampton. Their impact wasn’t big—it didn’t even cover the whole state—but it was strong. People living in the small, isolated town where the Murdaughs lived said they were in charge.

How did Alex Murdaugh achieve his notoriety?

In the third week of the trial, Jeanne Seckinger, who used to be the chief financial officer of PMPED, talked about how Alex Murdaugh works as a lawyer.

Ms. Seckinger said that Mr. Murdaugh’s success wasn’t because of how hard he worked but because of his ability to build relationships and get people to settle with him and clients to like him.

That work made him a lot of money—millions of dollars that helped him and his family live a good life, with a speedboat, a beach house, a huge hunting property called Moselle with 1,700 acres, and a staff to help. But Murdaugh’s success, which seemed to be his birthright, hid his secret: he was addicted to painkillers and had stolen, lied, and embezzled for years.

On the stand in Walterboro, Mr. Murdaugh admitted through tears that he had stolen millions of dollars from settlements meant for his clients. In 2019, he stole $3.7 million (£3 million). He said he knew it was wrong but was broke because of his drug addiction.

State prosecutors painted a picture of theft and fraud on a scale almost too big to believe and of a person who thought he could get away with it. They say Mr. Murdaugh stole from coworkers, clients, the young, the old, the disabled, and the sick. He is being charged with almost 100 different money crimes.

Alex Murdaugh’s fall has brought people to the Walterboro courthouse early in the morning for more than a month. The line is too long to fit inside. Upstairs, in the cool air of the courtroom, people in suits and sundresses are sitting in rows and rows of dark wooden pews. At times, the mood has been strangely like a church reception, with Mr. Murdaugh’s brother and son walking around, shaking hands, and giving tepid smiles.

The prosecution and the defense will give their final arguments in the next few days. The jury will then go away to think about their decision.

Many people in the Lowcountry said they thought Alex Murdaugh’s time was up.

But for decades, the Murdaugh family has used juries as an ally. They have walked out of courtrooms with decisions that have helped them build their wealth and power.

Alex Murdaugh’s fate will be decided similarly, which may be a final test of his power in a case where all the evidence is circumstantial. There was no murder weapon found, no blood on Mr. Murdaugh’s t-shirt that night, and no eyewitnesses to the killings.

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And his decision to testify, which was both an unusual and legal risk, may have shown how much he still believes in himself and trusts that he can change people’s minds, as he has done for years.