The real life soap opera murder trial of Alex Murdaugh has been dominating the news over the last week or so. Largely because the trial has been televised, it’s been great drama. It also reveals the class nature of US society.
Murdaugh is from the prominent family in a rural county in S. Carolina. His father, his grandfather and his great grandfather were all county prosecutors. His grandfather’s portrait had been hanging on the courtroom wall until this trial. Then, it had to be taken down so as not to prejudice the jury. And Alex Murdaugh himself had been president of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association. Not only that, but he’d served as a part time prosecutor in the county.
Yet here he was, on trial for the murder of his wife and his son. In short, his wife and son had been shot at point blank range on the Murdaugh property. The prosecutor claimed that it was Murdaugh, and that his motive was to distract from financial crimes he’d committed. Right up until the time that Murdaugh testified, he claimed that he wasn’t there anywhere close to the time of the murders. That was going to be his alibi. Even his lawyer was offering that alibi. But in the face of a recorded phone conversation that had his voice in the background, Murdaugh had to admit that he’d been there, but allegedly right before the shooting.
The evidence presented against him was entirely circumstantial. Circumstantial evidence can be sufficient to convict somebody, but in this case, even TV commentators – former prosecutors and lawyers alike – were extremely mixed as to whether the evidence was enough to eliminate reasonable doubt.
Murduagh took the stand to testify on his own behalf. That’s where it got really interesting. You see, Murdaugh is a truly slimy character. Among other things, he’d stolen millions of dollars from previous clients of his. In one case, Murdaugh won a multi-million dollar settlement for a client who’d won a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Murdaugh stole the money. In another case, Murdaugh won a settlement on behalf of two girls whose mother had been killed in an auto accident. He stole most of that money too.
Then there is the Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh family housekeeper. She supposedly was killed in an accident falling down the stairs at Murdaugh’s home. Murdaugh sued himself – or in reality his homeowners insurance company – and won a multi-million dollar settlement on behalf of the maid’s surviving children. He stole that money. (That case did not make it into the trial because a clear crime had not been committed.)
Then there was the boating accident which resulted in the death of a young woman who was a passenger. One of Murdaugh’s sons probably was driving the boat, and when Murdaugh went to the hospital to “check on” some of those injured he wore his law enforcement/prosecutors badge in what looked like (and was) an transparent attempt to influence the sheriffs deputies. In the end, any role his son played in that accident was covered up.
On the stand, And whereas he’d lied over and over, including about his whereabouts immediately prior to the murder, now he was telling the truth, you see.
His former maid’s death did not make it into the trial, and neither did the death by a hit-and-run auto accident of a Stephen Smith, a young man who had been a classmate of one of Murdaugh’s sons. Smith was gay and it seems he may have had an affair with Murdaugh’s son. There seemed to be some connection with the car of that son and the young gay man, but that was never seriously investigated.
Finally, there was the weird “attempted murder” of Alex Murdaugh a month or so after the murder of his wife and son. While Alex was stopped on the side of the road, a man drove by, stopped and shot at Murdaugh, grazing his head. The shooter was later identified (he’ll be coming on trial), and it turned out that Murdaugh knew him. The claim is that Murdaugh had paid him to kill himself so that his remaining son could collect life insurance money. I don’t believe that for a second. Somebody as selfish and narcissistic as Alex Murdaugh would not sacrifice his life for anybody else, no more than would Donald Trump. What I believe most likely is that he was trying to set up a claim that somebody was after his entire family and himself.
On the stand, Murdaugh put on quite a show. He was forced to admit to his financial misdeeds. He choked up. He sobbed and boohooed. He said how wrong what he’d done was. He claimed that it was all due to his (previous) opioid addiction, but he was over that and he’s now a new man. But he never offered to repay the money he’d stolen from his victims.
At the end of a many-weeks trial, the jury met for a mere three hours and then returned a “guilty” verdict. Almost all commentators were shocked at the speed of the verdict. Some were taken by surprise at the verdict itself. They said they had thought there would at least be a “struggle” among the jurors. To me, the result represents the class nature of society, in that this prominent family evidently was highly resented throughout the area. I think the defense made a major strategic blunder by not asking for a change of venue; they just assumed that “prominent” meant he was admired or even loved by all. That’s probably what Murdaugh himself thought.
As for myself, I’m glad he was convicted.
I think Murdaugh’s lawyer – and probably Murdaugh himself – made a major blunder. They didn’t move for a change in venue. Murdaugh had operated with impunity for years. He probably thought that his connections would protect him once again. He and his lawyer probably believed all the bowing and scraping that local residents probably did to him up until that time. They thought he was universally loved. But once he became vulnerable, the people’s “love” for him was revealed for what it was. The swift verdict of the jury showed the class nature of society.
So did the punishment. Murdaugh was eligible for the death sentence, but the prosecution didn’t ask for it nor did the judge impose it. Had it been a poor black man, the electric chair would be awaiting this particular perp. In his statement about the sentence, the judge commented on how Murdaugh had had a lovely family. No he didn’t. His son’s also operated with impunity, as we saw in the boating accident. Not only that, but it seems highly unlikely that they didn’t at least suspect that Murdaugh was stealing millions from his clients. At least one of them is paying some price for it now.