The murder of a mother and her son. Millions of dollars have been stolen. New inquiries have been launched into a fatal boat crash and a fatal fall by a housekeeper.
The tragic circumstances surrounding a lawyer and his family in South Carolina became increasingly perplexing over time, leading to several arrests, stunning twists — and now, one of the country’s most closely watched trials.
At its heart is Alex Murdaugh, 54, whose family has dominated the legal landscape in the state’s south for 100 years and who is now on trial on two counts of murder. Prosecutors accuse him of murdering his wife and son in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal his own financial crimes.
It all started on June 7, 2021, when Alex Murdaugh, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all top prosecutors across the state, called 911 to report that his wife and one of their two sons had been shot to death.
As more than a year passed without a suspect or motive being identified, the killings were shrouded in mystery. Mr. Murdaugh was then indicted on two counts of murder on July 14, 2022, with authorities alleging that he fatally shot his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun.
Mr. Murdaugh has been imprisoned since October 2021, when he was first charged with stealing from a former client, and prosecutors have since filed a slew of financial charges against him, alleging that he defrauded victims — many of whom were clients — out of approximately $8.8 million.
Mr. Murdaugh has maintained his innocence in the deaths of his wife and son, and his attorneys stated before the trial that he “looks forward to this opportunity to clear his name. “The jury selection phase of the trial began on Monday and was expected to last three weeks.
The investigation into Mr. Murdaugh has spawned several more investigations into three previous deaths in the family’s vicinity, and Mr. Murdaugh has also been charged with devising a bizarre scheme to stage his own suicide to look like a murder after being fired from his law firm. That case will be tried later.
If Mr. Murdaugh is convicted of murder, state law requires him to serve at least 30 years in prison, and prosecutors have stated that they will seek a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Jurors will also hear testimony on two charges that Mr. Murdaugh was in possession of a weapon while committing a violent crime.
What happened in the original ‘Murdaugh murders’?
The shooting deaths of Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, a 22-year-old junior at the University of South Carolina, shook the state’s Lowcountry region, where the Murdaugh family had established a legal dynasty. The murders became known as the Murdaugh murders.
Few details about the attack were released, and no arrests were made for more than a year.
Mr. Murdaugh told authorities that he discovered their bodies after returning to the family’s remote home in Islandton, a rural hamlet about 65 miles west of Charleston.
In the audio of his 911 call, which he placed shortly after 10 p.m., a visibly distraught Mr. Murdaugh stated that he had arrived home and discovered their bodies on the ground “out at my kennel.”
“I’ve been up to it now, and it’s bad,” Mr. Murdaugh explained to the dispatcher. He stated that neither his wife nor his son were breathing, and he pleaded with the emergency personnel to act quickly. “Are they nearby, ma’am?”
According to reports, officers with the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office discovered several shell casings and called a tow truck company to the scene. They also claimed to have searched for surveillance cameras in nearby homes and businesses, though the heavily redacted police reports did not indicate whether they found any.
When and why was Alex Murdaugh shot?
Prosecutors claim that nearly three months after Mr. Murdaugh’s wife and son were murdered, an employee at his law firm — which his great-grandfather founded more than a century ago — discovered a check that was supposed to be addressed to the firm but was instead made out to Mr. Murdaugh. That discovery prompted the firm to conduct further investigation and, upon discovering evidence of financial wrongdoing, to request his resignation, which he gladly accepted. Mr. Murdaugh claimed the next day, Sept. 4, 2021, that he was shot in the head on the side of a rural road by someone who drove by while he was changing a flat tyre. He was taken to the hospital, but his story quickly unravelled. He was not, as he claimed, alone on the side of the road, but was with a friend and distant cousin, Curtis Edward Smith.
Mr. Murdaugh quickly admitted that he had requested that Mr. Smith shoot him in the head. According to Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers, he devised a plan to make his suicide look like a murder in order for his older son, Buster Murdaugh, to collect on his life insurance policy.
Mr. Murdaugh had been shot in the back of the head, according to medical records, but he was able to call for help afterward. Mr. Murdaugh issued an apology to his “family, friends, and colleagues” two days later and announced that he was entering rehab for a painkiller addiction.
Mr. Murdaugh and his cousin were both arrested as a result of the incident. Mr. Smith was charged with aggravated assault, attempting to commit suicide, and insurance fraud. He told The New York Times that he did not shoot Mr. Murdaugh and that the gun went off while he was grabbing Mr. Murdaugh’s arm to prevent him from shooting himself.
On September 16, Mr. Murdaugh surrendered to police and was charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, and filing a false police report, all felonies.
Mr. Murdaugh and Mr. Smith were indicted on conspiracy charges in July 2022 for what prosecutors said was years of money laundering related to oxycodone distribution.
What is the power of the Murdaugh family?
The Murdaugh legal dynasty can be traced back to Randolph Murdaugh, who ran a one-man law firm before being elected as the first chief prosecutor for a five-county region covering 3,200 square miles in 1920.
He held the position for two decades before being killed in a train accident. Then his son, Randolph Murdaugh Jr., also known as Buster, took over his father’s position as Solicitor of the 14th Circuit. When the younger Murdaugh retired after 46 years, his son, Randolph Murdaugh III, Alex Murdaugh’s father, was elected and served until 2006.
Alex Murdaugh never ran for prosecutor, but he did work as a volunteer prosecutor and occasionally assisted his father with cases. In September, he was officially removed from his volunteer position.