Even the Murdaugh trial has moments of tedium
Though more than 200 people pack the 24 benches in the old courtroom in Walterboro, there’s a looming deathly quiet during the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, the disbarred lawyer whose rich family has been a big deal in the area for generations.
You can hear the low whoosh of the air conditioning chilling the room. Someone coughs. A chair squeaks. But it’s really quiet overall. Still, despite microphones and speakers, you occasionally have to strain to hear and understand what a witness testifies as a dozen jurors and five alternates stoically, grimly endure what’s been dubbed by some as the “trial of the century.”
It’s Day 14, the day after a bomb threat emptied the courtroom for two-and-a-half hours. It turned out to be a hoax. Three weeks ago, the trial for the murders of Murdaugh’s wife and son kicked off with a couple of days of jury selection plus some arguments about what would and wouldn’t be allowed during testimony. Since then, state prosecutors have called more than three dozen witnesses, several of whom detailed minutiae about cell phone records, financial information or forensic evidence found at the country estate where someone slaughtered two people in June 2021.
Murdaugh, the accused, sits between his defense lawyers. An experienced litigator, he might be mistaken as one of the lawyers. When he was brought in by deputies, he carried thick, expandible document-filled folders in each arm. But as he sits, often with his head tilted slightly downward, you occasionally see a gentle rocking motion that must soothe him, but looks fidgety. He chews on something. Every now and then, such as during the testimony of a best friend who said he was upset and angered by personal and professional betrayal, Murdaugh wipes his eyes.
The Murdaugh trial could go on for three more weeks. In a lot of ways, trials like this feature a lot of wasted time as lawyers get witnesses to testify, repeat and sometimes three-peat small details. It’s sometimes hard to figure out the relevance of what’s being said as prosecutors continue to build their case. For one-day visitors, it can be tedious. “It’s not Matlock,” one television anchor reflected, noting that long trials are slow-going and don’t fit into an hour-long show.
A 17-year-old senior from Dorchester Academy in St. George observed, “When you don’t understand what they’re talking about, it gets a little boring.” But she, like classmates in a criminal justice class, said they were glad they attended because they got a better understanding of the trial process.
Every morning around 8 a.m., members of the public start lining up to nab a seat in the courtroom before proceedings begin at 9:30 a.m. The audience is largely white with a healthy mix of older women.
After an hour of sitting on a thin, lumpy, upholstered tan cushion, the bench starts to feel hard. Soon, the judge breaks for a couple of minutes for people to stretch, but then it’s back to it. After three hours, the jury looks a little restless, seeming to squirm without actually being caught squirming. Moments after a key witness — that longtime friend and colleague — finishes, the judge calls for the lunch recess. The courtroom empties for 75 minutes as the audience heads for six food trucks and other locations to grab a bite before returning to get more lurid details in the afternoon.
The trial goes on, blistering the nightly news across South Carolina and the world as two dozen reporters churn out continuing coverage for print, television and digital consumption. In the days ahead, the air conditioner will continue to hum. Chairs will squeak. Gawkers will gawk. And there will be lots of quiet, joined occasionally by tears. And the grim jury will keep attentively listening so its members can do their duties to come up with a verdict.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: email@example.com.
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