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Lights, camera, trial: All eyes on Alex Murdaugh as a small South Carolina city prepares for a 'circus'

The trial of the once-prominent lawyer — accused of murdering his wife and son in 2021 — opens with jury selection Monday at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro.
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WALTERBORO, S.C. — Hotel rooms have been booked for weeks in this small South Carolina city, about 50 miles west of Charleston, where some residents have advertised their homes on Airbnb for hundreds of dollars a night.

In a parking lot across from the Colleton County Courthouse, food trucks will be catering to an anticipated throng of legal teams, law enforcement, news outlets and members of the public, from true crime enthusiasts to curious gawkers, all converging for what one local newspaper has headlined “the trial of the century.

That trial — of Alex Murdaugh, the scion of a well-connected legal family who stands accused of murdering his wife, Margaret, and their son, Paul, with a shotgun and rifle — is slated to begin Monday with jury selection. The frenzy of the trial could potentially last a few weeks, and Court TV is promoting “gavel-to-gavel coverage.”

Alex Murdaugh sits in the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., as his attorneys discuss motions in front of Judge Clifton Newman on Dec. 9, 2022.
Alex Murdaugh sits in the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., as his attorneys discuss motions in front of Judge Clifton Newman on Dec. 9.Tracy Glantz / The State via Getty Images file

Since the evening of June 7, 2021, when Murdaugh frantically called 911 to say he had found his wife and son fatally shot near the dog kennels at their Colleton County estate, the saga spawned attention as an unsolved double homicide, but it soon unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hit man plot and drug addiction, and revived scrutiny into other curious deaths linked to the prominent family.

Few trials in recent memory have riveted this region of South Carolina, known as the Lowcountry, where for nearly a century, fathers of three generations of Murdaughs wielded power as top prosecutors for a cluster of counties. But the perceived spectacle means that not only will Murdaugh be on display — so will the county seat of Walterboro, population 5,460.

“We didn’t want this, but it’s happening, and it’s here,” Scott Grooms, Walterboro’s director of tourism and downtown development, said last week. “We have to put on our best face and take care of our guests.”

The logistics of pulling off a major trial is not lost on Grooms, a former television journalist who covered the 1995 trial of Susan Smith, the white South Carolina mother who had falsely told police a Black man had kidnapped her two infant sons in a carjacking before confessing she had drowned them in a lake.

Scott Grooms, director of tourism and downtown development in Walterboro, S.C.
Scott Grooms, the director of tourism and downtown development in Walterboro, S.C.Erik Ortiz / NBC News
Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.
The Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C.Erik Ortiz / NBC News

The Smith trial, imbued with racial overtones, was held in the tiny city of Union and brought a wave of international interest and outsiders clamoring to visit the lake. Simply finding a place to eat was a chore, Grooms recalled.

But, he said, he didn’t want Walterboro to be caught flat-footed, and after Christmas, he posted on Facebook that the town was soliciting food trucks to set up near the courthouse.

Almost immediately, comments were divided:

“Clowns and concessions, now all you need is a trapeze troop to complete the three ring circus.”

“This is so disrespectful.”

“It is better that our community is perceived as prepared rather than not.”

The cost of the trial was not immediately available, but in a city where the annual budget is about $7 million, there are necessary expenses, such as police overtime, portable restrooms, signage and fencing that have to be taken into account.

“We’re ready to roll with it — we have to be,” Grooms said. Later, on his way to a meeting, he glanced at the latest news on a cellphone, his eyes widening: Netflix had just dropped a trailer for a docuseries about the case, titled “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.”

A winding case                            

The Murdaugh name runs so deep in the Lowcountry that the Colleton County Courthouse had to remove a portrait of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., Alex Murdaugh’s late grandfather and a top prosecutor for 46 years, from a back wall of the courtroom during the trial. (Alex's father, Randolph Murdaugh III, had been seriously ill and died at age 81, three days after Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were killed, adding to the intrigue.)

A portrait of Randolph "Buster" Murdaugh Jr., Alex Murdaugh's late grandfather, was removed from the Colleton County Courthouse ahead of Alex's trial.
A portrait of Randolph "Buster" Murdaugh Jr., Alex Murdaugh's late grandfather, was removed from the Colleton County Courthouse ahead of Alex Murdaugh's trial.Erik Ortiz / NBC News

While Alex Murdaugh, 54, was from neighboring Hampton County, he had also been a fixture at the Colleton County Courthouse for years, having represented clients as a personal injury attorney in the Lowcountry before he was disbarred last summer.

About 900 jury summons notices went out in a county of about 38,600 people. With so much at stake, local officials want the process to run smoothly, so as not to trigger a mistrial.

Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.
Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.via Facebook

Legal experts say jury selection in South Carolina is typically not drawn out, but this is not an ordinary trial, and Murdaugh’s defense team and the prosecution — led by chief prosecutor Creighton Waters of the state Office of the Attorney General — will be especially strategic in seating jurors. If found guilty, Murdaugh could face life in prison without parole.

It remains unclear if the jury will be sequestered. Some wondered if the trial might even be delayed after a son of Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman, who is overseeing the proceedings, died earlier this month. Newman, one of only a handful of Black circuit court judges in South Carolina, has presided over other prominent trials, including that of a white police officer, Michael Slager, who eventually pleaded guilty in the fatal shooting of a Black man, Walter Scott, in North Charleston.    

During a pretrial hearing in December, prosecutor Waters provided a possible motive for the crime, alleging that for years Murdaugh had schemed and stolen about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims, including through his family’s firm and from clients, and he was so desperate to “escape the accountability” that he killed his wife and son, then covered it up to gain sympathy.

His financial situation grew dire in 2019, when Paul Murdaugh was involved in a boat crash that resulted in injuries and claimed the life of a 19-year-old passenger, Mallory Beach. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs, who owned the boat, and the convenience store chain that was alleged to have sold alcohol to the underage occupants. A settlement agreement is pending.

Disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaughwalks into court for his bond hearing on Sept. 16, 2021, in Varnville, S.C.
Alex Murdaugh enters the courtroom for his bond hearing Sept. 16, 2021, in Varnville.Mic Smith / AP file

At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh had been awaiting trial on three felony counts of boating under the influence and was out on a personal recognizance bond of $50,000.

“I think when this case started a lot of people assumed this was a murder case and then with some white-collar [crime] running in there,” Waters said at the pretrial hearing. “But the reality is, as we’ve done this extensive investigation, we’ve realized that this was a white-collar case that culminated with two murders.”

But Murdaugh’s defense team — led by veteran lawyers Jim Griffin and Richard “Dick” Harpootlian — responded at the hearing that the state had not indicated it had 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 alleged impropriety, which he sought to conceal by killing them.

While proving motive is not necessary for the prosecution’s case, the defense will need to pick apart the reams of evidence that the state plans to present, including laying out how Murdaugh’s spiraling finances led to an unimaginable double murder, said Dennis Bolt, a retired attorney in Columbia who has served on cases with Harpootlian and Griffin.

Another question remains: Will Murdaugh testify in his own defense?

Don’t count him out, Bolt said. “The last murder case I tried, and Jim Griffin was my co-counsel, if we hadn’t put the defendant on the stand, Jim believes he would have been convicted.”

Anticipation looms

Along Walterboro’s downtown, where law firms, quaint antique shops and empty storefronts line the street, the upcoming trial has some residents anxious about what the perception of the community will be.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Patti Lohr, 66, as she stopped by a jewelry store to check on longtime owners Lewis and Arlene Harris. “I don’t want us to look podunk because of this man,” referring to Murdaugh.

“All this attention,” Lohr said, “it’s going to be a zoo.”

“A circus would describe it better than a zoo,” Arlene Harris added. “A three-ring circus.”

The last time that Walterboro, with its columned antebellum homes and towering live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, has seen such a fuss was when Hollywood came to town: Scenes from the sweeping 1994 Tom Hanks classic “Forrest Gump” were filmed here, as was the 1993 sports drama “Radio.”

In recent months, Walterboro residents got a taste of the renewed recognition when news trucks descended on the Colleton County Courthouse for hearings involving Murdaugh. Murdaugh remains held on a $7 million bond for the finance-related charges.

The Rev. Leon Maxwell, who presides over St. Peter’s AME Church, which was founded in 1867 and is the oldest Black church in Colleton County, said he’s been following the case closely and will tune in to the trial on TV. While he didn’t know Alex Murdaugh personally, he said few with longstanding ties in the area had not been touched by the Murdaughs’ orbit in one way or another.

In hushed, sidebar conversations, some wonder if the justice system will treat Murdaugh any differently because of his family's prestige, Maxwell said.

“I think about this from a biblical perspective: What will it prosper a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Maxwell said, reciting Scripture. “That’s not just for Mr. Murdaugh. That’s for everybody. Are we willing to sell our soul for worldly pleasures? How much will it cost us in the end?”