What the judge said to Alex Murdaugh is why we should abolish the death penalty

Funny how ex-South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh cried his little eyes out on the witness stand when he thought he could help him, but showed no trace of human feeling when he was found guilty on Thursday of murdering his wife Maggie and son Paul at one of his Lowcountry estates in June of 2021.

Much of the country has been consumed by thisSuccession”-level story of the old money, Old South patriarch who was both a prosecutor and such a psychopath that he whacked two members of his own family, supposedly to deflect attention from his many financial crimes.


Lots of commentators thought he might walk because that motive was so murky and illogical, but since when did any reason to commit murder make rational sense? If I know a single person who’s been following this morality tale and yet remained unconvinced of Murdaugh’s guilt, I’m not aware of it.

Three things did this man in spite of all of his privilege: First, local journalism from our small but mighty McClatchy sister paper, Hilton Head’s The Island Packetwithout which charges might never have been brought.

At trial, the same Big Tech that is hurting local journalism played a major role. Because even a practiced liar like Murdaugh couldn’t explain away proof like the cellphone video that placed him at the scene of the murders. Or the phone data that showed he’d walked so many steps during the same four-minute period when his wife and son had to have died, and when he’d said he had been napping in the house.

Murdaugh’s own hubris in believing he could talk his way out of trouble by taking the stand must have made the jury’s work easier, too.

But the true surprise wasn’t the guilty verdicts that followed his six-week trial in Colleton County. Instead, it was the truth spoken by Judge Clifton Newman at the Friday hearing where he sentenced Murdaugh to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Newman suggested that some might ask why this wasn’t a death penalty case. But then, the judge supplied a good answer to that question.

“I don’t question at all the decision of the state not to proceed (with) the death penalty,” Newman said. “But as I sit here in this courtroom and look around (at) the many portraits of judges and other court officials and reflect on the fact that over the past century your family, including you, have been prosecuting people here in this courtroom,” the judge went on, he couldn’t help noting that many of those prosecuted by Murdaughs “have received a death penalty probably for lesser conduct.”

Amen, Your Honor.

Our system was designed by those with means and influence, and without question favors them, too. Which is why, as the death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean has often said, there are no millionaires on death row.

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty in all cases: It’s administered unfairly. As a result, we often get it wrong. Killings by the state are costly and have no value as a deterrent, but do successfully degrade us all. They keep us no safer, but only satisfy the blood lust that must have inspired a Tennessee lawmaker to just this week propose a return to “hanging by tree,” aka lynchings, as a method of execution.

Perhaps inadvertently, Judge Newman suggested that one more good reason to oppose the death penalty is that life in prison can be a far harsher punishment than execution.

“I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night times when you’re trying to go to sleep,” he told Murdaugh. “I’m sure they come and visit you. I’m sure.”

“Every day and every night,” the man in the brown jumpsuit and handcuffs replied. That, too, might be a lie right now. But at 54, Murdaugh will presumably have plenty of time for the judge’s prediction to become a reality.

“And they will continue to do so and look you in the eye,” Newman told him.

When the privileged are treated just as anyone else would be after committing horrible crimes, then we all feel at least a little bit proud that justice has been served, and that’s what happened here.

But if the powerless ever received the same legal protections as those who can afford a large and illustrious team of defense lawyers, only then would we have a system that lives up to its promise that we’re all equal under the law.

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