Alex Murdaugh, a prominent South Carolina personal injury attorney, was so desperate to "escape the accountability" for a string of financial crimes that he fatally shot his wife and son last year and sought to cover up the slayings to gain sympathy and buy himself more time, state prosecutors alleged on Friday.
Chief prosecutor Creighton Waters laid out the state's motive during a hearing ahead of a criminal trial slated for next month, when Murdaugh, 54, will face murder charges in the deaths of his wife Margaret, 52, and the couple's youngest son, Paul, 22.
"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. "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."
Waters said that the state has evidence showing that from about 2011 to 2021, Murdaugh stole money from clients in "an unbroken chain of constant lies and misappropriation and thefts."
Since Murdaugh’s arrest last year in connection with an investigation into millions of dollars missing from a settlement involving the death of his longtime housekeeper, prosecutors have filed more than 80 financial-related charges against him, alleging he stole about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims.
His need for cash began when land deals in 2007 and 2008 went "upside down," Waters said.
Then, in 2019, 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.
Waters said that the plaintiffs were expecting to get a "personal recovery" from Murdaugh, whose financial situation was growing increasingly bleaker.
Murdaugh was on "a hamster wheel of constantly having to borrow and earn and steal just to keep kicking the can down the road and to stay above water," Waters said. "An exhaustive hamster wheel. A slow burn that was heating up and heating up."
State grand jury subpoenas had been issued in the boat crash case in 2021, and at the time of the killings of Margaret and Paul Murdaugh on June 7, Paul Murdaugh was facing trial.
The bodies of the wife and son were discovered by Alex Murdaugh at the family's hunting estate in rural Islandton, about 65 miles west of Charleston. Both had been fatally shot, police said.
Lawyers for Murdaugh have said that he had an alibi on the night of the killings and that he was spending time with his mother, who has dementia, and her caregiver. The lawyers deny that he was involved in the deaths.
On the day of the killings, Murdaugh was already facing a "day of reckoning," Waters said, because his law firm was asking questions about finances related to one of his cases.
But with the death of his wife and son, Murdaugh benefited because his law firm halted its questioning and a hearing in the boat case was canceled, according to Waters.
Jim Griffin, one of Murdaugh's lawyers, rejected the state's motive during Friday's pretrial hearing and questioned why he would "shift a financial investigation away from himself in order to avoid scrutiny" only to put himself "in the middle of a murder investigation."
He added 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 cover up by killing them.
Griffin added that Murdaugh's father, Randolph Murdaugh III, a former prosecutor, was also gravely ill at the time, and Murdaugh would have "had all the sympathy" already.
Discussion about the motive was one of a number of motions that Murdaugh's defense team asked Colleton County Judge Clifton Newman to rule on before trial, along with requesting that the state turn over more evidence.
Murdaugh, who is being held on a $7 million bond for the financial-related charges, appeared in court Friday in a suit and without handcuffs. The trial is set for Jan. 23.