how the Murdaugh trial gripped America

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There was a hush in the courtroom when Judge Clifton Newman confronted Alex Murdaugh with the ghosts of his dead wife and son, whom the South Carolina lawyer had just been convicted of brutally murdering in a trial that gripped America.

Related: Violence, corruption, power: key moments of Alex Murdaugh’s trial

Murdaugh, the quietly spoken judge suggested, would be visited by their presence as he tried to sleep. Murdaugh, who continues to protest his innocence, nevertheless accepted the judge’s words.

“All day and every night,” Murdaugh said just before Newman sentenced him to life for the killingsostensibly in a botched attempt to divert attention from a network of financial fraud and lies that was about to be exposed but had come to define his wealthy lifestyle.

It was a fittingly dramatic end to a drama that has captured the attention of a country with no shortage of crime stories to get obsessed about. But the saga of the Murdaugh murders struck a particular chord with the US public: dripping with violence, fraud, political power, corruption and mystery. And all served with a veneer of deep south gothic straight from South Carolina’s rural Lowcountry.

This hardscrabble stretch of America is a place, as is so often said about the south, where the grim legacies of the past not so much linger, but – like Murdaugh’s victims – revisit people every night. The Murdaugh name hangs heavy over the town of Hampton and surrounding counties where the family held the levers of legal and political power over many generations.

A sign welcomes people to Hampton, South Carolina. Photograph: Jeffrey Collins/AP

Significantly, the trial itself was held in Walterboro, 30 miles from Hampton, and outside the county lines of Murdaugh influence.

Jurors’ certainty of Murdaugh’s guilt in the murders of Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, was clear. Members of the panel revealed that although they took three hours to deliver the verdict, they had actually arrived at it after just 45 minutes.

But for people on the streets of Hampton the exact details of what Murdaugh had done still remained a bit hazy in a case that seemed almost always certain to come up with a guilty verdict despite being based on largely circumstantial evidence.

Some jurors doubted that Murdaugh had pulled the trigger on his wife and son but were less sure he hadn’t ordered their execution. Others spoke of other deaths in Murdaugh’s orbit, including his housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, in 2018 and Stephen Smith in 2015.

Some predicted that Murdaugh would still find a way out. “I don’t think he’ll serve his time,” said one resident. “He’ll take his own life or he’ll piss someone off enough to take his.”

Alex Murdaugh walks into a bond hearing on September 16, 2021.

Alex Murdaugh walks into a bond hearing on September 16, 2021. Photograph: Mic Smith/AP

Hampton has been visited by reporters and documentary-makers for close to two years. Now most residents still willing to speak, did so on condition of anonymity. Almost all saw a boat crash that killed local girl Mallory Beach, and Murdaugh’s efforts to divert blame from his son Paul, who was driving the craft, as the beginning of the undoing.

Paul was known around town for being a heavy drinker who would strip to his underwear when drunk and was doted on by his mother and disciplined by his father. They theorized that Paul was his father’s undoing, because he could not contain the legal ramifications of his son’s behavior once Beach’s family sued in a move that was likely to expose Murdaugh’s fraudulent business practices as a powerful local lawyer.

But blame-shifting has been attendant to the entire Alex Murdaugh saga. The family was often well-liked – or at least respected or feared – in town. His father, Randolph, and grandfather Buster were positively adored. The family law firm sponsored the watermelon festival in June; won awards litigating personal injury cases; controlled the levers of power.

Before Murdaugh’s trial began, a portrait of Buster was removed from the courtroom – a sign that deference to the family and its history in the region expired at murder.

“You’re either with them or against them. If you’re not with them it doesn’t work out,” another resident said. It paid off to be a cousin, or claim to be a cousin, until circumstances demanded otherwise, such as when Alex Murdaugh leaned on Paul Murdaugh’s boat passengers to not identify him as the driver in the fatal boat crash.

This feudal system survived until it could not, one man implied on Hampton’s Main Street last week. The murders, he said, had been a shock to everyone. “Everyone knew they were crooked – just not how crooked. They had law enforcement with them, they stole from everyone, and everyone knew it.”

Two months after the murder of his wife and son, Murdaugh contacted Edward Curtis Smith, a sometime family handyman, to stage his murder on a country road. The suicide-for-hire plot went awry when Murdaugh survived and with that lost the opportunity to win a $10m settlement for his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh.

“I think Alex had caught up with his own self,” said one resident. “He’d stolen so much from his own law partners, and so much from the people he did business with, that he was trying to straighten himself out. Paul just got in the middle of it, and Paul kept doing bad things, one right behind the other, and Maggie was covering for him.”

Justin Bamberg, a lawyer and representative in South Carolina’s state assembly, said outside court after the guilty verdicts had been delivered, the power and influence the Murdaughs once had in the legal system had already dissipated – the charges against Murdaugh and the verdict proved as much .

“Obviously it didn’t influence much, and Alex tried hard,” Bamberg said.

He compared Murdaugh’s controlled expression while the verdict was read and his sometimes emotional testimony of the witness stand. “Emotion served him in his act in front of the jury but once they reached a verdict there was no need for that,” he said.


On Friday, the local community was coming to terms with the end of an era. The local paper, Bluffton Today, ran a front-page article surveying how three generations of men named Randolph Murdaugh wielded legal and political power in the five-county 14th judicial circuit until “a scandalous scion wrecked their reputation and brought about the fall of a century-old dynasty”.

The gates near Alex Murdaugh's home in South Carolina.

The gates near Alex Murdaugh’s home in South Carolina. Photograph: Jeffrey Collins/AP

But the lingering aspects of Murdaugh’s power were still evident. Even in sentencing him to life behind bars, Newman proffered a seeming excuse for his murderous acts – his widely cited addiction to opioids.

“It might not have been you, it might have been the monster you become when you take 50, 60, 70 opioid pills,” Newman said. “I’ve seen that before.”

Standing outside Elephant Ears, a Hampton’s roadside stop for deep-fried dough, Tammy Donoghue voiced what many also expressed. The full power and influence of the Murdaugh clan was likely at an end. “I don’t think people will trust them,” she said.

“And they’re still pretty powerful.”

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