Prosecutors in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh wove an elaborate timeline during closing arguments Wednesday, seeking to convince a South Carolina jury that the once-reputable lawyer became a "family annihilator" when he killed his wife and younger son to evade accountability for a string of financial misdeeds.
Using electronic data and video extracted from the victims' cellphones, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters placed Murdaugh at the crime scene June 7, 2021, saying he had access to family firearms when he ambushed his son Paul before he shot his wife, Margaret, multiple times on the grounds of the family's hunting estate in rural Colleton County.
"She heard that shot and was running to her baby when she got mowed down by the only person that we have conclusive proof was at that scene just minutes before," Waters told the jury.
The state built on weeks of testimony and hundreds of pieces of evidence in its sprawling case, and Waters spent much of his closing argument highlighting all the times Murdaugh had lied, sometimes to investigators about his alibi.
"There is only one person who had the motive, who had the means, who had the opportunity to commit these crimes and also whose guilty conduct after these crimes betrays him," Waters said.
"The forensic timeline puts him there. The use of his family weapons corroborates that," he added. "And his lies and his guilty actions afterward confirms it."
Earlier Wednesday, at the defense team's request, the jurors were given more than an hour to visit the outdoor property, kennels and shed where Margaret and Paul had been in their last moments. The property has since been vacant, with the grass uncut, the kennels empty and items such as a deflated football and a tube of sanitizing wipes seemingly left untouched.
A concrete pad where Paul fell after he was struck twice by shotgun blasts was still visible. Margaret, whose body was found several feet away, suffered five gunshot wounds from a different weapon. While the interior of a feed room appeared to have been renovated, large bullet holes remained in a back window.
The prosecution has said investigators haven't found either of the two murder weapons — a .12-gauge shotgun and .300 Blackout assault-style rifle. Shell casings were used to match the type of weapons that killed Paul and Margaret with firearms known to be owned by the family.
Waters laid out a "gathering storm" of events engulfing Murdaugh's life as he faced an investigation by his family's law firm on the day of the killings.
"Those pressures mount," he said, "and that person becomes a family annihilator."
The trial of Murdaugh, which began in late January and was initially expected to last a month, included 61 witnesses for the prosecution and more than a dozen for the defense.
The 12-person jury heard from an array of law enforcement investigators and crime scene analysts; cellphone and GPS data forensics experts; Murdaugh's former law firm colleagues and banking associates; family members, including his surviving son, Buster; and the defendant himself.
Few trials in recent memory have so riveted this region of South Carolina, known as the Lowcountry, where, for nearly a century, three generations of Murdaugh patriarchs wielded power as top prosecutors for a cluster of counties. Murdaugh himself was a part-time prosecutor and tried cases in the same Colleton County Courthouse where his double murder trial is taking place.
The prosecution secured an important victory earlier in the trial when Circuit Judge Clifton Newman agreed that testimony about Murdaugh's financial crimes could be admitted into evidence to buttress the state's assertion of motive — that he killed his wife and son to gain sympathy and halt the looming investigation into $792,000 in missing settlement money he is accused of stealing from his family's law firm.
According to prosecutors, Murdaugh had been swindling clients for years, and he used the money, in part, to feed an addiction to pain pills.
Murdaugh had also been under strain from a lawsuit involving Paul, who at the time of his death was facing trial on three felony counts of boating under the influence in connection with a 2019 boat crash that killed a teenage passenger.
A lawyer for the victim's family testified that he thought he was going to have to drop the lawsuit if it turned out the murders were connected to Paul's involvement in the boat crash.
During the state's closing arguments, Waters said that Murdaugh had much to lose if his financial malfeasance was exposed but that the deaths of his wife and son promptly stopped the law firm's investigation and stymied the boat crash case to his advantage.
"The pressures on this man were unbearable, and they were all reaching a crescendo on the day his wife and son were murdered by him," Waters said.
Key moments in the Murdaugh trial
- The opening statements begin with a "gruesome" account of the slayings.
- A video of a dog taken by Paul before the murders undermines Murdaugh's alibi.
- The judge allows Murdaugh's financial crimes into evidence, a pivotal win for the prosecution.
- Murdaugh's surviving son, Buster, testifies that his father was "heartbroken" by the deaths.
- Murdaugh takes the stand over two days and admits to having lied to investigators.
Murdaugh, who has long maintained his innocence in the slayings, told investigators he had taken a nap and then went to visit his ailing mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, at the time of the killings. He then drove back to his home and called 911 at about 10:07 p.m. after, he said, he found his wife's and son's bodies at the kennels.
But prosecutors revealed key evidence during the trial of a video that placed him at the crime scene in the minutes before they say the killings occurred at about 8:50 p.m. In response, Murdaugh took the stand last week and said he had lied multiple times to investigators, admitting that he was dishonest about his location before the murders because of his drug addiction and general paranoia.
Waters seized on his change of story to cast doubt on Murdaugh's credibility.
"Why would he lie about that, ladies and gentlemen?" he asked the jury. "Why would he even think to lie about that if he was an innocent man?"
He also suggested Murdaugh knowingly used two different types of weapons in the murders to confuse investigators.
Data tracking Murdaugh’s steps taken from his cellphone showed that immediately after the killings, he moved at a much faster pace before he left the estate for his mother's house.
"He wouldn't even admit until he was forced to that he was at the scene," Waters said. "And then he's as busy as he'll ever be."
Murdaugh's defense team — led by veteran lawyers Jim Griffin and Richard "Dick" Harpootlian — have argued that the state has offered no evidence showing Murdaugh would reap a financial windfall from the deaths of his wife and son, such as a life insurance payout, nor that they knew of any allegations of impropriety, which he sought to conceal by killing them.
The defense has also argued there is no direct evidence, such as fingerprints, surveillance video or a confession, that proves Murdaugh pulled the trigger.
But Waters said it defies belief that another killer or killers knew to go to the family's estate at the exact time Murdaugh wasn’t there to use the family’s firearms and kill his wife and son.
"He fooled Paul and Maggie, too, and they paid for it with their lives. Don't let him fool you, too," Waters said, wrapping up his closing arguments after about three hours.
The defense is expected to begin delivering its closing arguments Thursday morning.
If he is found guilty, Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison without parole for the two counts of murder and five more years in prison for two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.