Voices: Why no one will ever pronounce the Murdaugh name wrong again

Alex Murdaugh is met by the media as he arrives for his murder trial  (AP)
Alex Murdaugh is met by the media as he arrives for his murder trial (AP)

When Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were gunned down at their family’s hunting estate in the summer of 2021, few people outside of their South Carolina community had heard their names before. Nationally, it was a shocking double murder of a mother and adult son who hailed from a wealthy family. But beyond that, the Murdaugh name held no significance.

In fact, the name itself sparked much discussion as true crime enthusiasts, curious members of the public and journalists new to the family’s cases — myself included — toyed with the pronunciation. Is it Mur-doe? Or Mur-daw? I think it could be Mur-dock? Is the father and husband Alec or Alex? (It’s pronounced Alec Murdock for anyone still unsure.)

But, as I began digging into the case in the days after the murders, it quickly became clear how much weight the name held in the local community.

In the rural area of Hampton County, everyone already knew the Murdaugh name — and news that two members of the powerful, influential family had been victims of a horrific crime sent shockwaves among residents.

For almost a century, the Murdaugh family had essentially symbolised local law and order. From 1920 to 2005, three generations of Murdaugh men were elected to the role of prosecutor in the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office, making them the top prosecutor over five counties in the southwest corner of South Carolina.

First came Randolph Murdaugh Sr, who died suddenly in 1941 when his car got stuck on train tracks and was struck by a freight train. He was succeeded by his son Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh, who then passed the baton to his own son Randolph Murdaugh III — Alex Murdaugh’s father — in 1986.

As well as reigning over the Lowcountry’s legal system, the family also ran its own private law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED) which was founded by Randolph Sr in 1910. Following in his family’s footsteps, it was this law firm that Alex Murdaugh worked for up until September 2021 — and which now no longer exists after he allegedly stole millions of dollars from the firm and its clients.

All in all, the Murdaughs were wealthy. They were powerful. And they had connections. They rubbed shoulders with the state’s governors, mingled with members of law enforcement and had many friends within all corners of the legal system. But the thing that made the Murdaugh name more prominent within the Lowcountry wasn’t the power – it was how the power appeared to come in useful when family members were embroiled in scandals. How many in the community felt the name helped controversies — and potential crimes — disappear.

In the space of six years, there have been five deaths linked by varying degrees to the Murdaugh name.

When Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old gay teen, was found dead in a Hampton County road in 2015, a murder investigation was launched. Rumours of “a Murdaugh boy” being involved emerged, but were never substantiated by authorities. The case was ultimately ruled a hit-and-run and closed.

When the Murdaugh family’s housekeeper Gloria Satterfield died in a mysterious trip and fall at the family home in 2018, there wasn’t even an investigation. Her death was ruled natural causes and there was no autopsy.

When Mallory Beach, 19, died in a boat crash with Paul allegedly drunk driving behind the wheel in 2019, the Murdaughs were accused of trying to blame another teen — and Mr Murdaugh was investigated for trying to influence survivors and shape the stories they gave to law enforcement.

But when Maggie and Paul were shot dead, not even the family’s century-old prominence and power could stop Mr Murdaugh from facing the full force of the law.

And yet during the last six weeks of his murder trial, the extent of the power and prominence the Murdaugh name still wielded inside the Colleton County Courthouse has caught me by some surprise.

It began before the trial even got underway.

Jury selection laid bare the challenges of finding 12 individuals who did not have some connection to the Murdaughs — or at the very least didn’t know of the family. Among prospective jurors were Beach’s cousin, a friend of Paul’s ex-girlfriend and fellow boat crash survivor Morgan Doughty, and an individual whose father had been sued by the man now on trial.

Meanwhile, on the walls of the courtroom, a square patch of unfaded paint has loomed prominently over the proceedings. There once hung a portrait of Mr Murdaugh’s grandfather – a portrait now more noticeable because of its absence. Judge Clifton Newman ordered its removal for the duration of the trial as the late prosecutor’s grandson finds himself on the wrong side of the justice system.

Throughout proceedings, reminders have also repeatedly cropped up about the web of connections between many of the lawyers in the courtroom. Mr Murdaugh’s attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin have known Mr Murdaugh for some time and previously represented Paul in the boat crash case. Long before Mr Murdaugh was charged with the murders of Maggie and Paul, the legal duo were representing him — speaking on national TV networks on his behalf and joining him in law enforcement interviews over his slew of other alleged crimes.

This became clear during a testy cross-examination of  SLED Senior Special Agent Ryan Kelly when Mr Harpootlian appeared to begin to recount his own version of events, and prompted a warning from Judge Newman. “Mr Harpootlian, you cannot testify,” he said.

The man working to send Mr Murdaugh to life behind bars also revealed his own connection to the family when he began cross-examination of the accused killer.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters recalled how he had once worked on a case with Mr Murdaugh’s late father Randolph and — in a rare moment of harmony with Mr Murdaugh — agreed that he had been an excellent lawyer.

Several witnesses too found themselves being questioned by lawyers they had previously worked with.

It’s perhaps unsurprising — given the Murdaughs’ ties to the justice system and Mr Murdaugh’s own career as a prominent lawyer in the area — that several of Hampton County’s leading attorneys found themselves in an unfamiliar role in the courtroom as they were called as state witnesses to testify about his multi-million-dollar fraud scheme at the law firm.

Testimony repeatedly began with questions like: “We’ve worked together in the past haven’t we?” (Along with one awkward moment where Mr Harpootlian did the opposite and forgot he had met a witness he was cross-examining at Maggie and Paul’s funerals.)

Some also had more even more unexpected ties to the Murdaughs. One bizarre link came from Jeanne Seckinger, PMPED’s CFO who testified to how she uncovered Mr Murdaugh was stealing funds from the firm. She revealed that she was also the sister-in-law of Russel Laffitte — the man now behind bars convicted of being Mr Murdaugh’s co-conspirator in his multi-million-dollar fraud scheme.

At points of the trial, the web of who knows who has been so sprawling and messy it’s been hard to keep up. But it has also perhaps given the most poignant portrayal of the power and influence the Murdaugh family has long wielded: with the courtroom acting as a microcosm of the Hampton County community outside.

Now, it’s not only Hampton County where everyone knows of the Murdaughs. Across America, Murdaugh is now a household name – a name that now will forever be associated with murders, theft, mysterious deaths and abuse of power.

And a name that no one — myself included — will be pronouncing wrong anymore.