Alex Murdaugh taking the stand was a "fatal" move in his double murder trial — and the Snapchat video that placed him near the scene of his wife and younger son's deaths was the final "nail" that sealed the case, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said Friday ahead of the sentencing.
Appearing on NBC's "TODAY" show Friday morning, Wilson spoke of the moments in the high-profile trial that sealed Murdaugh's fate.
On Thursday, after three hours of deliberations, a jury of seven men and five women convicted the 54-year-old disgraced Lowcountry lawyer of murdering his wife, Margaret, 52, and son Paul, 22, at their hunting estate in rural Colleton County in June 2021.
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"That kennel video that no one knew existed until months after the murders occurred, it was basically Paul speaking from beyond the grave. That, yes, Alex Murdaugh was there just moments before Maggie and Paul were brutally murdered. That was a major piece of the state’s case," Wilson said.
In the case, the state presented the Snapchat video evidence taken from Paul’s cellphone that placed Murdaugh at the estate’s kennels at 8:44 p.m. the night of the murders, countering his denial to investigators that he had last seen his family at dinner time. Paul and Margaret were killed some time from 8:50 p.m. to 9:06 p.m., according to investigators.
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On Friday, after Murdaugh's sentencing hearing, NBC News asked his defense team, “How damning was the lie about the kennel video?”
“Damning,” attorney Dick Harpootlian said. Attorney Jim Griffin added, “Extremely.”
The attorney general said Friday that Murdaugh himself was the "biggest piece of evidence."
“When he took the stand, I think that was fatal for him ultimately," Wilson said. "Alex had made very successful career of giving closing arguments to juries and winning major cases and making a lot of money." Taking the stand "was his closing argument to the jury. I believe in my mind that he believed that he could talk his way out of this. And at the end of the day, I think that’s what sealed it for him," he said.
He explained that the state made a case for motive in the trial — arguing Murdaugh was attempting to gain pity and distract attention from financial crimes threatening to destroy his reputation — because people had a hard time comprehending the brutality of the crime.
"One of the things that I would get from people in the street ... people can understand a spouse killing another spouse, but the way that Paul and Maggie were murdered, his son, the brutality of it, people just had a hard time making that leap," Wilson explained.
"What you have is a family legacy that is over 100 years old, you have a man that has lived a lifestyle of privilege in a world that many of us will never know, and all of that was going to end eventually. And he was getting desperate," he said. "He wasn’t just killing his wife and son because of the money he wasn’t making, it was everything, it was an entire lifestyle and lifetime that was going to come to an end."
Wilson said he believed Murdaugh probably loved his wife and son in his own way, "but he loved himself more. And killing them was the price he was willing to pay to preserve his way of life."
When asked about whether putting Murdaugh on the stand was a fatal mistake, Harpoolitan said he knew it could be a problem for the defense.
“After all the financial crime stuff came in and the fact that he had not told the law enforcement the truth to begin with, Jim and I six months ago, when we knew what the story was, we knew that the lie, as we call it, would be a major issue,” he said.
Murdaugh was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole. In addition to two counts of murder, the jury also convicted him of two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, which carry five more years in prison.
Lawyers for Murdaugh moved for a mistrial after the verdicts were read. The motion was denied by the judge, however, who said that the verdict was a matter for the jury and that there was enough evidence to have found the disgraced lawyer guilty.
“The evidence of guilt is overwhelming, and I deny the motion,” Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman said.
The jury's decision came after a trial that started in late January and included nearly six weeks of testimony from 75 witnesses, including Murdaugh.
Prosecutors said Murdaugh, who was disbarred last year in the wake of the charges, had been swindling clients for years and had used the money partly to feed an addiction to pain pills. He had also been contending with a lawsuit involving Paul, who at the time of his death had been facing trial on three felony counts of boating under the influence in connection with a 2019 boat crash that killed a teenage passenger.
The deaths of his wife and son brought the law firm's investigation into Murdaugh's suspected financial malfeasance to a halt and hindered the boat crash case to his advantage, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said.
During closing arguments, the defense had portrayed Murdaugh as a family man who had a loving relationship with his wife and children.
Griffin had argued that the state had no direct evidence his client had carried out the killings before calling 911 the night of the shootings, June 7, 2021, to say he had found the bodies of his wife and son near kennels at their hunting estate.
Investigators testified that Paul had been hit twice by a shotgun, while Margaret was shot multiple times with an AR-style rifle. Neither weapon was found, but agents said they used shell casings from family firearms to match the murder weapons.
The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence for much of its case to convince jurors Murdaugh was guilty, using electronic data and video from the victims’ cellphones to suggest he was the only person with the motive, means and opportunity to kill them.
“We had no doubt that if we had a chance to present our case in a court of law, that they would see through the one last con that Alex Murdaugh was trying to pull — and they did,” Waters said Thursday, speaking after the jury's verdict.
Wilson said that the case captivated the nation because of its complexity.
“You can’t write this story in Hollywood. It’s a generational story. It goes back to the boat case. It goes back decades before that,” he said. “I do want to remind people, as interesting as this case was, a lot of lives were destroyed. Two people were brutally murdered and there’s a wake of victims from Alex Murdaugh leading up to this.”