Colleton County Courthouse, Walterboro, S.C. | Photo by Andy Brack
Murdaugh

A much-anticipated murder trial that starts Monday in Walterboro is, by definition, an automatic media spectacle. It starts with the story of an affluent small county Lowcountry ex-lawyer charged with murdering his wife and a son. But it also blends in the possibility that the murders, an odd 911 call and alleged attempted suicide were little more than ways the defendant tried to cover up the disappearance of millions of dollars from one source after another.  

The whole kit and caboodle is the story of Alex Murdaugh, whose family, friends and acquaintances alternatively pronounce his first name as “AL-ix” or the more colloquial and friendly “AL-ik” – sometimes in the same sentence. His downfall from privileged paragon of Hampton County to jumpsuit-wearing prisoner has captured the nation’s attention in a plethora of news reports, specials, podcasts and even a made-for-TV Netflix docuseries that starts at the end of February. Layer upon layer of nuances about the June 2021 murders and later financial charges have been analyzed, dissected and opined upon as a real-life saga of something that seems straight out of a Stephen King novel.

There are a lot of moving parts. So here are five things to keep in mind as you follow the coverage that will suck the oxygen out of Lowcountry news reporting in the days ahead.

  1. Murder trial. The trial that starts Monday will focus on the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, wife and a son of Alex Murdaugh. They died June 7, 2021, at the family estate. Three months later, police reported Murdaugh tried to arrange his own death so his surviving son would get a $10 million life insurance payment. At the time, police said the planned fatal shot grazed his head, but many wondered soon afterwards about the injury after they couldn’t see evidence of it in a court hearing. In September 2022, the state indicted Murdaugh on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
  2. Financial charges. In September 2021, three months after the murders, state police announced it opened an investigation into whether Murdaugh misappropriated funds while a lawyer in a Hampton firm. That same month, Murdaugh resigned from his law firm and the state Supreme Court disbarred him as an attorney. In the months since, he’s racked up more than 100 charges related to financial shenanigans.

    These allegations will be settled in future trials, but are expected to be a major part of the murder trial as prosecutors reportedly will argue the murders were committed to distract attention from what one lawyer called nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.

    In a story published last week by The New Yorker titled “The Corrupt World Behind the Murdaugh Murders,” author James Lasdun wrote, “The prosecutors’ briefs give an impression of someone living in a trance of entitlement, siphoning funds from any flow of money that entered his field of awareness. Lex allegedly stole from colleagues and strangers, from the able-bodied and the injured, from the living and the dead, from the young and the old, from a white highway-patrol officer and a Black former football player.”
  3. The defense. As the trial has approached, defense lawyers led by Jim Griffin and Dick  Harpootlian, a high-profile former state solicitor who is a Democratic state senator, continue to insist Murdaugh had nothing to do with the murders of his wife and youngest son. They have filed lots of pretrial motions accusing prosecutors and state police of “false testimony, destroying evidence and altering photographs of evidence.” The defense arguments apparently got state prosecutors to rethink whether to offer “blood spatter” evidence reportedly found on a T-shirt worn by Murdaugh.
  4. Media frenzy. Not only does Court TV plan to have “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of the trial of the Murdaugh murders, but major news outlets from across the nation will descend upon Colleton County Monday. They’ll cover every angle in what is a saga of privilege in the rural South. And if you look close enough, you might see some talking heads around town — hotel rooms have been booked for weeks in and around the region.
  5. Town is ready. Walterboro, a town of 5,500 people, bills itself as the “front porch of the Lowcountry.” Officials say they’re ready for the media onslaught, but some residents are grumbling about the food trucks and crowds headed to the community. Expect the courthouse, which holds 238 people, to be packed every day.

This list could continue, with lots of nuanced information, such as the death of a 19-year-old girl in a boating accident in which Paul Murdaugh was charged with driving the boat while drunk two years before he was murdered. Or the 2018 death of the Murdaugh’s housekeeper, whose body was exhumed and how her family didn’t get an insurance settlement worth millions until they settled a lawsuit against the same bank that was implicated in Murdaugh’s financial schemes. Or how a banker with that bank was found guilty in November by a federal jury of six counts of financial crimes related to Murdaugh. The banker, Russell Laffitte, is appealing.

So hold onto your hats. It’s bound to be a wild ride.


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