Why is the Alex Murdaugh trial captivating US audiences?

The 54-year-old South Carolina attorney has been accused of murdering his wife and son at their rural hunting lodge.

Alex Murdaugh gives testimony during his murder trial
Alex Murdaugh gives testimony during his murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, on Thursday, February 23 [Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool]

A murder trial in the southern state of South Carolina has captured the attention of people across the United States, as the high-powered attorney Alex Murdaugh, 54, stands accused of killing his wife and son.

Appearing in court on Friday, Murdaugh was questioned about inconsistencies in his story about the night Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and their 22-year-old son Paul were shot to death.

The case has garnered outsized national attention in the US, a country with a penchant for murder mysteries. That the investigation centres on a suspect who belongs to a powerful and well-connected family has made the case all the more closely watched.

Alex Murdaugh on the witness stand, seen from across the shoulders of prosecutor Creighton Waters
Alex Murdaugh is cross-examined by prosecutor Creighton Waters on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023 [Joshua Boucher/The State via AP, Pool]

Who is Alex Murdaugh?

Hailing from the swampy, coastal low country of South Carolina, Murdaugh is the scion of a prominent family of lawyers who have held sway in the region for nearly a century.

Three members of the family have held public office as solicitor for South Carolina’s 14th Circuit Court — including Murdaugh’s father.

Murdaugh followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming a lawyer. In 1993, he married Maggie Branstetter and had two children, Paul and Buster.

But the double homicide has renewed scrutiny of the Murdaughs and the power the family has wielded.

While Murdaugh has denied the murder allegations, he has admitted to lying to investigators and funnelling large sums of money from clients and legal partners to help fund an opioid addiction.

On top of the alleged murders, Murdaugh is facing charges for more than 100 other crimes, including alleged financial schemes like tax evasion.

He was arrested in October 2021 on charges including obtaining property under false pretences after leaving a drug rehabilitation facility in Florida.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters holds up a 14th circuit solicitors badge of Alex Murdaugh's
Prosecutor Creighton Waters holds up a 14th circuit solicitor’s badge during a court hearing on February 23 [Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool]

What do we know about the murders?

Emergency services operators received a 911 phone call from Murdaugh on the evening of June 7, 2021, saying he had found the bodies of his wife and child outside their hunting lodge in Colleton County, a rural part of South Carolina.

Investigators said Maggie Murdaugh was killed by four or five rifle shots, while Paul was killed by two blasts from a shotgun. The bodies of the mother and son were discovered near the dog kennels on the family’s sprawling property.

Prosecutors have accused Murdaugh of carrying out the killings to generate sympathy as woes from his financial crimes piled up.

But the exact circumstances leading up to the killings remain unclear. In the months following the deaths, Murdaugh initially maintained he was not near the dog kennels at the time of the shooting.

Prosecutors, however, have used video from his son’s iPhone to show Murdaugh’s voice was recorded on the device five minutes before the phone became inactive — which they allege places Murdaugh at the scene of the murder.

Murdaugh has said he left to visit his ailing mother and only discovered the bodies upon his return.

What has been the public reaction?

The murders have fuelled intense public scrutiny, with live news coverage of the court proceedings and a high-profile TV series devoted to unravelling the mystery.

The video streaming service Netflix released a docuseries titled Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal on February 22, and HBO Max released a mini-series on the murders in November 2022.

This genre of television appeals to a broad audience across the US. According to a 2022 YouGov poll, half of adults in the country said they enjoyed true crime content, with 13 percent stating it was their favourite genre.

One audience member following the proceedings even crocheted dolls representing Clifton Newman, the judge on the case, and prosecutor Creighton Waters. Images of the dolls have since gone viral, according to the South Carolina paper The State.

A forensic engineer shows a recreation of the crime scene
Mike Sutton, a forensic engineer with the North Carolina-based Accident Research Specialists, answers questions about shot trajectory during the Alex Murdaugh trial on February 21 [Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool]

What have been the latest developments?

In testimony this week, Murdaugh speculated that the shootings were aimed at his son Paul, who had been drunk-driving a boat that crashed and killed a passenger.

Murdaugh also insisted he has tried to help investigators solve the murder of his wife and child.

“Other than lying to them about going to the kennels, I was cooperative in every aspect of this investigation,” Murdaugh said.

“Very cooperative except maybe the most important fact of all, that you were at the murder scene with the victims just minutes before they died,” prosecutor Waters shot back.

On Friday, Murdaugh also said he had been consuming more than 2,000 milligrams of oxycodone during some of the days leading up to the deaths.

“Opiates gave me energy. Whatever I was doing it made it more interesting. It made me want to do it longer,” he testified.

Murdaugh’s remaining son Buster Murdaugh also testified this week, defending his father. He described the elder Murdaugh as emotionally distraught in the days following the murders.

“He was destroyed. He was heartbroken,” Buster Murdaugh said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies