Voices: Will Alex Murdaugh remember what brought him down?

Murdaugh Killings (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Murdaugh Killings (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Alex Murdaugh is now slated to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murders of his wife Maggie and son Paul. The astonishing murder trial delivered its final twist on Thursday evening when the jury returned its guilty verdict after less than three hours — a tiny fraction of the time they listened to unspeakably gruesome testimony about the killings.

While some of the 12 jurors may elect to reveal their identities and speak to the media in the coming days, as one already has, we’ll likely never have a full picture of what happened in the deliberation room. But having followed the courtroom circus in the most minute detail from our New York newsroom, there’s little doubt in my mind that the verdict hinged on one out of 75 witnesses: Murdaugh himself.

Murdaugh’s two-day stint on the witness stand began with a defiant declaration that he did not fatally shoot Maggie and Paul. He continued to make several confessions, from admitting he lied about being at the scene of the murders minutes before they occurred to acknowledging that he stole millions of dollars from his law firm clients.

Murdaugh was able to remember a mountain of tiny details — but was at a loss for a few key big ones.

He walked the jury through the final day he spent with his son “PawPaw” riding around the family’s sprawling estate, how they stopped by the duck pond and marveled at growth in the corn fields. He described wrestling a chicken away from his dog Bubba’s mouth in an incident that has become central to the trial because video filmed by Paul proved Murdaugh was at the scene minutes before the killings. He even remembered the exact moment that, while driving to his parents’ house on the night of the murders, he stopped his car to retrieve his phone from in between the seat and the console.

Major holes in what began as a very specific retelling started to emerge as soon as Murdaugh faced cross-examination. He struggled to remember exactly what he told dispatchers in his 911 call — despite having listened to recordings of the call multiple times over the course of the trial. He also couldn’t remember what he and his wife talked about the last time they spoke, just minutes before she and her son were shot dead.

And while he admitted to lying about his alibi on the night of the murders — from the moment the first police officer arrived on the scene to the moment he took the witness stand 20 months later — Murdaugh couldn’t remember the moment he decided to tell that lie.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters seized on the disconnect in Murdaugh’s ability to remember certain things but not others during an intense cross-examination. Asked what he did with his phone when he arrived home from his day out with Paul and went to take a shower, Murdaugh said he wasn’t sure.

Waters pounced, citing Murdaugh’s “very specific recollection” the day before about the phone slipping under his car seat. “Mr Waters, those are two distinct, different things,” Murdaugh replied before stumbling through an explanation of why he doesn’t remember exactly where he put his phone at the house.

Waters accused Murdaugh of giving “awful specific” recollections when he needs to make his story fit with data already presented to the jury, adding: “But you’re awful fuzzy on the far more important things, aren’t ya?”

Murdaugh repeatedly attributed any holes in his memory to his opioid addiction, while being unable to explain why the drugs affected some memories and not others. In his closing argument for the defense, Murdaugh’s attorney Jim Griffin emphasized that misremembering things doesn’t prove anything.

Those already convinced of Murdaugh’s guilt found it easy to conclude that his entire story was rehearsed — just not quite well enough. The son of a legal dynasty that has controlled a slice of South Carolina for almost a century, he likely felt more at home in a courtroom than most.

But watching Murdaugh struggle to explain his story under fierce questioning from a relentless prosecutor, I had to wonder: How would I handle being in his shoes?

To be sure, I don’t ever expect to find myself accused of murdering my spouse and child. But how much would I, or any average person, remember of such a traumatic event nearly two years down the road — with the added pressure of retelling my story in front of a jury that will decide my fate?

This question loomed large in my mind as I tried to predict what verdict might be coming. Put up against a knot of compelling circumstantial evidence, the horrible brutality of the murders, and the inconceivability that a man could kill his own wife and son, Murdaugh’s emotional-yet-inconsistent testimony was the stone tipping the scales back and forth in my mind.

I thought I’d be turning those scales over for days while waiting for the jury to come back with its verdict. But in two hours and 45 minutes, the jury returned with a clear message: Alex Murdaugh could not be believed.