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Why Has The Alex Murdaugh Murder Trial Gripped America?

The US has been absorbed by the six-week murder trial of a once-prominent attorney, whose family long dominated the legal scene in the small Southern county where he lived.

On Friday, Alex Murdaugh, 54, received a sentence of life in prison for shooting his wife, Maggie, and son Paul in 2021 at the family’s hunting property in Islandton, South Carolina.

Why has there been so much interest?

The powerful Murdaugh family has been a legal dynasty in the Deep South for generations, with members controlling a regional prosecutor’s office for more than 80 years and running a powerful law firm in the area. The murders took place on a sprawling 1,772-acre farm the family called home. During the court case, Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster, took to the stand to defend his father.

The family saga has piqued the interest of true crime enthusiasts. Discovery released a three-part series a year after Maggie and Paul were killed, HBO Max launched a three-part documentary in November and Netflix last week released Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal for US audiences.

“Today’s verdict proves that no one, no one — no matter who you are in society — is above the law,” South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson said after the verdict was delivered on Thursday.

The hangar and dog kennels are seen where the bodies of Paul Murdaugh and Maggie were found at the family property.
The hangar and dog kennels are seen where the bodies of Paul Murdaugh and Maggie were found at the family property.

The hangar and dog kennels are seen where the bodies of Paul Murdaugh and Maggie were found at the family property.

What happened with the killings?

Murdaugh called 911 on the evening of June 7, 2021, and said he found his son and wife dead when he returned home from a one-hour visit with his mother, who has dementia.

Authorities said Paul, 22, was shot twice with a shotgun, each round loaded with different sized shot, while Maggie, 52, was struck with four or five bullets from a rifle. A crime scene report suggested both victims were shot in the head after initially being wounded near dog kennels on the Murdaughs’ property.

Prosecutors took more than a year to charge the disgraced lawyer with murder but decided not to pursue the death penalty, which is legal in South Carolina.

Alex Murdaugh is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and son by Judge Clifton Newman at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.
Alex Murdaugh is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and son by Judge Clifton Newman at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.

Alex Murdaugh is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and son by Judge Clifton Newman at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.

What happened during the trial?

More than 75 witnesses were called and about 800 photographs, reports and exhibits were presented as evidence. Jurors visited the crime scene on Wednesday before the prosecution and defence gave closing arguments.

Prosecutors said Murdaugh killed his family members in an attempt to gain sympathy and keep a bevy of financial crimes from being exposed.

Murdaugh maintained his innocence throughout the trial, but prosecutors showed he had lied about being at the scene of the crime just minutes before his wife and son were killed.

Key evidence

The weapons used to kill the victims were not produced. But prosecutors did get one key piece of evidence that showed Murdaugh lied to police and that put him at the kennels where his wife and son were shot just five minutes before investigators think they were killed.

It’s a Snapchat video taken by Paul, locked in his cellphone for a year after the killings until federal agents could hack into it. Murdaugh told the first police officer to arrive – and every investigator afterward – that he was never at the kennels. But his voice is on that video.

“I did lie to them,” was one of the first things Murdaugh said when he took the stand in his own defence, blaming paranoia because he was addicted to opiates and had a bottle of pills in his pocket when he was questioned. But he said he left the pair and returned to find them dead.

The jury rejected that claim, reaching a guilty verdict on both counts of murder and two counts of possessing a deadly weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

Alex Murdaugh gives testimony in his murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.
Alex Murdaugh gives testimony in his murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.

Alex Murdaugh gives testimony in his murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.

Alleged financial crimes

Murdaugh also admitted repeatedly that he lied and stole millions of dollars from his clients and law firm. He was asked about nearly every victim and whether Murdaugh if he lied to their faces.

“I took money that wasn’t mine. And I shouldn’t have done it. I hate the fact that I did it. I am embarrassed by it. I’m embarrassed for my son. I am embarrassed for my family,” Murdaugh said.

What happened at the sentencing?

Murdaugh was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison on Friday, a day after he was found guilty of murdering his wife and son.

Judge Clifton Newman handed down the ruling after a jury convicted Murdaugh on two counts of murder.

Murdaugh spoke briefly before his sentencing, saying, “I’m innocent. I would never hurt my wife Maggie, and I would never hurt my son.”

Alex Murdaugh is seen in this police mugshot photo in Orlando, Florida.
Alex Murdaugh is seen in this police mugshot photo in Orlando, Florida.

Alex Murdaugh is seen in this police mugshot photo in Orlando, Florida.

What happens next?

Murdaugh can appeal the ruling.

He is still awaiting trial for a series of financial crimes he admitted to while on the stand in his murder case, as well as charges of insurance fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.

Murdaugh was disbarred last summer. Prosecutors have charged him with stealing nearly $9 million (£7.488 million).

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