A South Carolina jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon to decide the fate of Alex Murdaugh, a once-prominent personal injury lawyer accused of murdering his wife and their younger son in a plot to gain sympathy and evade scrutiny into his financial crimes.
The jury was given the case following closing arguments in which Murdaugh's defense team attempted to poke holes in the state's assertion of motive and sow doubts that he fatally shot his wife, Margaret, and son Paul on the night of June 7, 2021.
Earlier Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman removed one of the 12 jurors and replaced her with an alternate after he said she engaged in improper conversations about the case outside the courtroom.
Defense lawyer Jim Griffin used his closing arguments to depict Murdaugh, who was disbarred from practicing law in the wake of the charges, as a family man with a loving relationship with his wife and children, and to stress that the state had no direct evidence that he pulled the trigger.
Investigators had testified that Paul was struck twice by a shotgun, while Margaret was shot multiple times with an AR-style rifle. Neither weapon has been found, but agents said they matched the murder weapons using shell casings from family firearms.
Griffin argued that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents bungled their handling of the investigation from the beginning, failing to adequately secure the crime scene, take footprint impressions in the outdoor kennel area where the bodies were found and preserve tire tracks that may have pointed to another suspect's vehicle.
He also took issue with the prosecution's timeline of the night of the slayings and that Margaret and Paul's estimated time of death — at about 8:50 p.m. — is based on when their cellphones stopped showing activity, rather than any definitive determination.
Griffin played a video to the jury that was first presented at trial during the state's case from Paul's cellphone of the kennels in which three voices — belonging to Paul, Margaret and Murdaugh — could be heard talking about a dog in the minutes before 8:50 p.m.
"Four minutes later, the state would have you believe that Alex Murdaugh up and blew his son's brains out of his head," Griffin said.
"Nothing on that tape indicates any strife, any anger, any planning, anybody being afraid, anybody running, any scurrying," he added.
The state initially used the video to point out that Murdaugh had been repeatedly lying to investigators claiming that he was not at the kennels and hadn't seen his wife and son before their deaths. Instead, he had insisted he was napping and then had gone to visit his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.
In response to why his voice could be heard in the video, Murdaugh took the stand last week and said he lied about his location before the murders because of his drug addiction and general paranoia.
Griffin reiterated that Murdaugh has lied about his actions and his drug addiction, but called the prosecution's motive that he killed his wife and son because he was under financial pressure and about to be exposed for swindling money from his family's law firm an "illogical" theory.
"He slaughtered his wife and son to distract from an impending financial investigation, so he puts himself in the middle of a murder investigation and puts himself in the spotlight of a media firestorm," Griffin told the jury.
"That is their theory of the case," he added. "If you don't accept that beyond a reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen, I submit the verdict has to be not guilty because there is no reason for him to do it, no reason whatsoever."
Closing arguments underway in Alex Murdaugh double murder trialMarch 2, 202305:07
The prosecution built its sprawling case on weeks of testimony and hundreds of pieces of evidence and used electronic data and video extracted from the victims' cellphones to suggest that only Murdaugh had the motive, means and opportunity to kill his wife and son.
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.
During the state's closing arguments Wednesday, lead prosecutor Creighton 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.
In response to the defense's closing arguments, prosecutor John Meadors told jurors Thursday that he agreed that Murdaugh loved his wife and son, as family and friends testified during the trial, but that his greater impulse was to protect himself at all costs.
"I think he loved Maggie. I think he loved Paul. But you know who he loved more than that?" Meadors asked. "He loved Alex."
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.
The trial has been highly anticipated since it began in late January, attracting intense coverage for a case first classified as an unsolved double homicide, but that soon unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hitman plot and drug addiction, and revived inquiries into other curious deaths linked to the Murdaugh family.
The final day of closing arguments began with a hiccup, when Newman said a juror — identified as No. 785 — had spoken about the case outside the courtroom. The juror denied having done so when Newman spoke with her, but he said two other people were interviewed about their contact with the juror and they "waffled on the nature and the extent of the contact."
The juror ultimately spoke with at least three people about the case but not extensively, Newman said he learned, although it involved "offering her opinion regarding evidence received."
Defense lawyer Richard "Dick" Harpootlian expressed concerns about the juror's actions and that SLED agents were present as the court investigated the situation.
"SLED has made another bad judgment in this case," he said. "This is just a continuum of a calamity of errors."
After explaining the situation to the courtroom, Newman brought the juror in and told her she was being dismissed.
"You have been by all accounts a great juror, smiled consistently and seemingly been attentive to the case and performed well," he said, adding, "Thank you for your service. I'm not suggesting you intentionally did anything wrong, but in order to preserve the integrity of the process and in fairness to all the parties involved, we're going to replace you with one of the other jurors."
The judge asked the juror if she had any belongings she needed to take with her before leaving, and she replied she had kept a dozen eggs in a back room.