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Alex Murdaugh trial: What to know about the case of the South Carolina attorney convicted of killing wife and son

Murdaugh found guilty of murdering wife, son
Special Report: Alex Murdaugh found guilty of murdering wife and son 09:19

Watch "48 Hours" "The Trial of Alex Murdaugh" 

A South Carolina jury has found disgraced former attorney Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and son at their country estate in 2021. 

The jury deliberated for less than three hours Thursday before returning the four guilty verdicts in connection with the murders of Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh. Alex Murdaugh was also found guilty on two counts of possession of a weapon during a crime. 

He was sentenced Friday to life in prison

Here's what to know about case and the 28-day trial leading up to the verdict.

Alex Murdaugh in court
Defense attorney Jim Griffin talks with his client Alex Murdaugh during Murdaugh's double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, Feb. 1, 2023.  Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool

Who is Alex Murdaugh?

Alex Murdaugh is a former law partner at P.M.P.E.D. law firm — where the "M" was for Murdaugh (the firm has since been renamed), as his great-grandfather was its founder. The 64-year-old graduate of the University of South Carolina's law school was part of his family's legal powerhouse, which goes back generations in South Carolina's Lowcountry region. A portrait of Murdaugh's late grandfather once hung in the very courtroom where Murdaugh's trial is taking place, but was removed by order of the judge for this trial. Most of his legal work was as a personal injury lawyer until he was forced out of the firm and then disbarred in July last year. 

Murdaugh has been in jail at the Richland County Detention Center since October of 2021 as he was unable to post his multimillion-dollar bond. During the trial, he was able to see his surviving son Buster, 26, who attended each day along with Murdaugh's siblings most days. 

Murdaugh faces a number of other accusations that are not part of this murder trial — including allegedly arranging his own death for an insurance payout. He faces nearly 100 charges against him for various financial crimes, including fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and forgery. He admitted to many of these crimes on the stand in this trial but legal proceedings on the other charges won't continue until after the conclusion of the murder trial. 

What happened the night of the Murdaugh murders?

Shortly after 10 p.m. on June 7, 2021, Alex Murdaugh called 911 from his property in Islandton, South Carolina, to report that he had found his 22-year-old son Paul and his wife Maggie, 52, murdered. 

"I need the police and an ambulance immediately. My wife and son were just shot badly," Murdaugh told emergency dispatch on the road. 

He said he found the pair out near kennels on the more than 1,700-acre property and checked both of them to see if they were breathing. When officers arrived on the scene they reported finding both Paul's and Maggie's bodies in pools of their own blood. 

"Any reasonable person would have assumed they were dead," first responding officer Sgt. Daniel Greene testified.

Greene's body camera footage of the night shows that Murdaugh was quick to offer Greene an explanation for why this might have happened. "This is a long story, months back he was in a boat crash, my son has been getting threats, mostly beginning stuff, but he's been getting punched," Murdaugh says on the video. 

That is a reference to a 2019 boat crash that killed South Carolina teen Mallory Beach. Paul Murdaugh was allegedly driving the boat the night of the fatal crash and the Murdaugh family was being sued by a group of the other passengers on the boat. 

Prosecutor Creighton Waters in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial
Prosecutor Creighton Waters asks for a juror to be seated as jury selection nears completion for Alex Murdaugh's murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, on Jan. 25, 2023. Joshua Boucher/The State/Pool/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

What was the prosecution's argument?

The state's team of prosecutors, led by Creighton Waters, painted a picture of a desperate Alex Murdaugh. They argue that the numerous pressures upon Murdaugh for his decades of alleged financial crimes created a perfect storm that led him to kill Paul and Maggie in order to obtain sympathy and end investigations into the money he's accused of stealing

"We couldn't bring you any eyewitnesses because they were murdered," Waters said in his closing statement. "But common sense and human nature can speak on behalf of Maggie and Paul. Look at this in its totality." 

The state's main points of evidence include a video taken by Paul minutes before he died on which multiple witnesses testified to hearing Alex Murdaugh's voice — despite Murdaugh claiming he was never at the kennels that night. Neither Paul nor Maggie showed any defensive wounds on them despite being shot at close range. A Snapchat video also taken by Paul shows Alex Murdaugh wearing a different set of clothes than the ones he was wearing when police found him on the night of the murders. The earlier set of clothes has never been found and the later set was "freshly laundered," as one witness testified, with no blood on them — even though Murdaugh claimed he checked the bodies of both Paul and Maggie for signs of life. 

The prosecution's argument also hinged on making the jury believe Murdaugh was desperate, and a liar who lied to cover his tracks in the murder.

"People lie because they knew they did something wrong … and just like always, when confronted with evidence he can't deny, he backtracks and pivots and tells another new lie … the one thing you know is a constant is he is lying to them," Waters said in his closing.

The prosecution is not seeking the death penalty but instead asking for life in prison without parole if convicted. 

"On behalf of the state of South Carolina, I ask you to return a guilty verdict against Alex Murdaugh for the murder of his son Paul and his wife Maggie and his possession of firearms during this malicious crime," Waters asked the jury. 

How did the defense approach the case?

The defense, led by Richard Harpootlian, argued that Alex Murdaugh is a victim in all of this. They frequently refered to Murdaugh as a family man who deeply loved Paul and Maggie. When asked by the defense, multiple witnesses testified that Alex Muradugh would always pick up the phone if one of them called. 

"It's not believable that he executed him an hour after the bonding Snapchat," Harpootlian told the jury. 

Video from an officer's interview with Murdaugh on the night of the murders shows his emotional reaction to finding Paul's body.

"That's my boy over there. I can see— [begins to cry] I can see his brain," he told officers. 

Harpootlian claims that law enforcement was so convinced of Murdaugh's guilt from the start they ran a sloppy investigation focused only on Murdaugh as a possible suspect. The defense filed multiple motions to try to exclude various pieces of evidence or testimony, ranging from Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes to blood splatter examinations, from the trial and frequently question any law enforcement witnesses about the methods they used. 

Murdaugh's attorneys worked to poke holes in the prosecution's case against him. Murdaugh's son Buster testified, and then Murdaugh took the stand in his own defense. In testimony that stretched across two days, he denied hurting his wife and son but did admit to lying during the investigation and to financial impropriety. 

"I have lied many times, facts I can't deny," Murdaugh testified. "I would disagree I did all the time but I lied to people who trusted me." 

The prosecution finished its cross-examination of him the following day.

The defense also challenged investigators' timeline of the night of the murders, with attorney Jim Griffin saying, "he'd have to be a magician to make all that evidence disappear," in the 17-minute window proposed by the prosecution.

"He's got no blood on him. He's acting normal as every day. He is the same old Alex. Yet their theory is he just blew the people he loved the most in the world, blew them away," Griffin said.

The defense offered a counter-theory that the two guns were fired by two shooters. Criminals, they argue, are still missing because of a biased investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED.

Alex Murdaugh in court with his attorneys
Alex Murdaugh sits in the Colleton County Courthouse with his legal team including Dick Harpootlian, middle, and Jim Griffin, right, as his attorneys discuss motions in front of Judge Clifton Newman. Tracy Glantz/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

What was going on with the jury?

The original jury from rural Colleton County consisted of 12 members and 6 alternates but by the end was down to only one alternate after several were dismissed for medical reasons and one was dismissed for discussing the case — a direct violation of the judge's order. 

The dismissal came a day after the jury visited Moselle, the Murdaugh's sprawling hunting estate and the scene of the crime. Jurors were able to see the distance between the house and the kennels and shed, where Maggie and Paul were killed, and the size of the shed.

During closing arguments, Waters asked the jury to rewatch the police interviews. The jury — five women and seven men — was under no obligation to do so but they did have access to all of the evidence for review.

In the end, they took less than three hours to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty on all counts.

CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman said it was "shocking" that the jury made a decision so quickly. Jurors also did not ask to have any testimony re-read or see any evidence again. 

"It was one thing for them to come to a rather quick decision, meaning a day or two, if they were going to find Alex Murdaugh guilty," Klieman said. "It's another thing to come to the decision within three hours." 

What happens next?

While the judge in the case dismissed the defense's motion for a mistrial, saying the "evidence of guilt is overwhelming," the defense team may choose to appeal, Klieman said.

"The defense may have grounds for an appeal on a variety of legal issues, but this was also a case that was very, very well tried on both sides," she said.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of attorney Richard Harpootlian's name.

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