The Murdaugh family murder trial, explained

The case has exposed years of fraudulent behavior and spurred investigations into three other deaths

Alex Murdaugh mugshot in greyscale
(Image credit: Illustrated | Hampton County Detention Center/AP Photo)

Former South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh, 54, was found guilty of murdering his wife and son. The captivating case has exposed years of fraudulent behavior and spurred investigations into three other deaths. Here's everything you need to know about the "Murdaugh murders."

Who is the Murdaugh family, and why were they so powerful?

The Murdaugh family held a decades-long dynasty as the district attorneys for five counties in South Carolina's Lowcountry. Randolph Murdaugh Sr. founded his private law firm in Hampton County in 1910 and was elected as a solicitor, South Carolina's equivalent of a prosecutor, for the state's 14th Circuit Court in 1920. He served in the role for two decades until he was killed in a train collision. He was succeeded by his son Randolph Murdaugh Jr., known as Buster, who took over for 46 years. Once Buster Murdaugh retired, his son Randolph Murdaugh III was elected and served until 2006. For 86 consecutive years, between 1920 and 2006, the Murdaughs mainly ran unopposed for the solicitor position, the longest such family legacy in the U.S., per a Vox report.

"They were powerful," Suzy Murdaugh, a relative, told The Guardian in 2021. "They own the country. If you went to court, you won. Didn't matter what it was. Don't think Alex, his father Buster, or his grandfather ever lost a case. He told the judge what to do."

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Randolph III's sons, Randolph IV and Alex, continued the legacy by becoming lawyers for the family's personal injury firm. They did not serve as solicitors but volunteered as prosecutors while running the family firm, formerly known as Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED). Alex was eventually fired from his position as a volunteer prosecutor, but he remained a well-known attorney throughout the region due to his family's legacy. He lived on a 1,772-acre estate known as Moselle with his wife Margaret, or Maggie, and their sons Buster and Paul.

What are the Murdaugh murders?

On June 7, 2021, a little after 10 p.m., Alex made a 911 call reporting that his wife and youngest son had been shot at their estate. In the audio, Alex emotionally explained that he had returned home to find the bodies of Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, "out at my kennel." Authorities discovered multiple shell casings on the scene, and the county coroner later revealed both victims had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, per NBC News.

Paul was awaiting trial on charges related to a 2019 boat crash accident at the time of his death. He was out on bail after being charged with allegedly drunkenly crashing his father's boat, leading to the death of one passenger, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, and seriously injuring two others. Paul pleaded not guilty to multiple felony BUI charges. Beach's family also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Alex and pressured him to release information about his finances. The Times reports that a hearing related to the matter was scheduled for three days after Paul was killed.

Weeks after Paul's death, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it would be reopening another unsolved case from 2015, the death of Stephen Smith, "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh." Smith's body was found on a rural road in Hampton, South Carolina, and his death was officially deemed a hit-and-run. No arrests had been made in the case, and authorities haven't charged anyone in the Murdaugh family with any wrongdoing. Police have not released any details of what triggered the renewed investigation or how it relates to the Murdaughs, per the Times.

The Murdaugh family's woes did not end there. In September 2021, Alex claimed a stranger shot him while he was pulled over on the road. He subsequently released a statement announcing that he was resigning from his firm and entering rehab for opioid addiction, CNN reports. In a statement, the law firm said he left after it was discovered "that Alex misappropriated funds in violation of PMPED standards and policies." Alex eventually admitted that he asked his cousin to shoot him so his son Buster, 22, could collect a $10 million insurance payout. He was arrested and charged with insurance fraud.

SLED also announced it would be opening a criminal investigation into additional fraud allegations related to the 2018 death of Gloria Satterfield, a housekeeper for the Murdaugh family, and the handling of her estate. Murdaugh later admitted that he owed Satterfield's sons money from a $4.3 million settlement in a wrongful death suit he helped the sons file against him, but the boys said they never saw their chunk of the money, the Times reports.

The investigation into Murdaugh's finances led to a total of 71 charges linked to accusations that he embezzled nearly $8.5 million from numerous victims in various fraud schemes. Alex was also indicted in July 2022 on two counts of murder and possession of a weapon for the deaths of his wife and son.

What happened in Alex Murdaugh's murder trial?

The trial for the double murder of Murdaugh's wife and son started in January and took place in South Carolina's 14th Circuit court, where the family once held prosecutorial power. The jury heard from over 75 witnesses, "and about 800 photographs, reports, and exhibits" were presented as evidence, per The Associated Press. A key piece of evidence for prosecutors was cell phone footage from Paul's phone, which placed Murdaugh on the estate, even though he initially told investigators he was not home.

During his two-day testimony, Murdaugh admitted to lying to the police and conceded that he was at the dog kennels shortly before the deaths of his wife and son. He blamed his lies on "paranoia from his opioid addiction, his distrust of state investigators, and his growing suspicions as police swabbed his hands for gunpowder residue and asked about his relationships with his family," NPR summarizes. "I don't think I was capable of reason, and I lied about being down there, and I'm so sorry that I did," Murdaugh said.

In closing arguments, state prosecutors argued Alex "was the only person who had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill his wife and son in June 2021 — and that his lies afterward betrayed him," CNN summarizes. "People lie because they know they did something wrong. That's why he lied, ladies and gentlemen," said prosecutor Creighton Waters.

The defense, meanwhile, alleged that the state did not prove Murdaugh's guilt "beyond reasonable doubt" and claimed it had also fabricated its evidence against him, per The Washington Post. "They decided, 'Unless we find somebody else, it's going to be Alex,'" said Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin.

Judge Clifton Newman will sentence Murdaugh at a later date. The minimum sentence is 30 years, and prosecutors say they will seek life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Update March 2, 2023: This article has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.

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