Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion | Murdaugh murder trial desperately needs a closing surprise

Opinion | Murdaugh murder trial desperately needs a closing surprise


WALTERBORO, S.C. — A bogus bomb threat that briefly halted the double-murder trial of Alex Murdaugh midweek seemed inevitable — as in, of course, there’s a bomb threat — as well as prescriptive. The courtroom had to be evacuated at the precise moment when sleepy jurors’ chins were dropping toward their clavicles, notwithstanding the riveting testimony of FBI automotive forensic specialist Dwight Falkofske.

I say inevitable because this is a trial in which nothing surprises anymore. At first, all the charges seemed unbelievable. Murdaugh, a fourth-generation lawyer in a family that dominated the region’s judicial system for nearly 100 years, had allegedly murdered his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul. But as layers of intrigue involving financial heists, murders and at least three other deaths connected to the Murdaugh family were revealed, it came to seem that nothing is unbelievable.

The bomb threat was taken seriously by security officials, who had been training for months before the trial began three weeks ago. But to everyone else, it was like an extended hall pass or a long lunch. When no-drama Judge Clifton Newman, in whose office the bomb was allegedly planted, blandly told the packed courtroom that everyone would need to evacuate, he didn’t bother to mention why. Reporters wouldn’t learn about the threat until nearly 30 minutes later.

When the courthouse reopened around 3 p.m., the trial picked back up with no mention of the bomb threat. It was a blessing when the judge soon sent everyone home early.

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Otherwise, much of the week was spent on the defendant’s 99 or so alleged financial crimes committed over some dozen years to the tune of more than $9 million. The media had already heard most of this the prior week when the state tried to persuade Newman to allow the charges and witness testimony into evidence. But the jury was absent during the first run.

Murdaugh’s alleged thefts are key to establishing a motive, the state has argued. Given substantial damning evidence and testimony by credible witnesses, there can be little doubt that Murdaugh is a dirty, rotten, lyin’ thief. He would be a scoundrel if he were Brad Pitt, but he’s not.

There’s also no question that on June 7, 2021, when he allegedly shot his son and wife, Murdaugh’s world was crumbling. That morning, his law firm’s chief financial officer had confronted him about missing money. A lawsuit related to a boating accident in which Paul was the driver and a passenger, Mallory Beach, was killed was slated for that same week — three days after the murders. The crash victim’s family lawyer, who testified, was seeking access to Murdaugh’s professional and personal accounts, which likely would have exposed his multitiered scam.

A man who allegedly has been addicted to opioids for 20 years might panic over such pressures. But would he kill his family, leaving his other son, Buster, to process an unimaginable horror? Could he possibly have thought that killing his wife and son would improve his circumstances? Reasonable doubt continues to haunt this trial.

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Murdaugh has admitted to long-term opioid use and has also been charged with drug trafficking. Indeed, he entered drug rehab right after his failed suicide/murder attempt in September 2021 involving one “Cousin Eddie,” legally known as Curtis Smith. Murdaugh claims he asked Smith to kill him so that Buster could collect his life insurance. Smith, now in custody, claims he tried to stop Murdaugh from killing himself. Whichever version is true, Murdaugh didn’t die and wound up in a Florida drug rehab facility, as publicly maligned people so often do.

The therapy must have done him some good, because Murdaugh has been transformed physically from a chubby-cheeked elderly frat boy into a lean, distinguished-looking lawyer, which he was before his disbarment for his alleged thefts. The most striking difference is in his eyes. In family photos before the murders, Alex’s eyes are intense and piercing, like an animal in the wild. I’m not talking deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes. Deer are afraid. I’m talking about the forest-dwelling creature that stares back when your flashlight catches him, and studies your fear.

For now, Murdaugh has lost that look.

For its part, the defense team has tried to shift attention from the alleged murderer to dear ol’ dad. In multiple cross-examinations, soft-talking defense lawyer Jim Griffin repeatedly asked about Alex’s personality. With notable consistency, witnesses described him as a man who always put family first, doted on his children, dropped everything to take their calls, and certainly never showed anything like the rage seen in the executions of Paul and Maggie. What happened was what cops on “Law and Order” call “overkill,” and it usually means a murder is personal. Maggie was shot with a semiautomatic rifle while she was running. Paul was nearly decapitated with a devastating shotgun blast to the head.

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Even witnesses who had been betrayed by their friend, partner, lawyer and boss had good things to say about Alex. His former paralegal, Annette Griswold, testified that though Murdaugh was difficult to work for because of his erratic hours and frenetic behavior, she respected, loved and cared for him. She told the court that he would do anything for anyone and didn’t know the word “no.” She compared him to a Tasmanian devil cartoon figure because “when he walked in, no matter what you were doing, you started spinning because he was just coming through shouting everyone’s name and wanting to get work done.” Sometimes this happened when the paralegals were about to head home for the day.

That was just Alex, as Griffin has tried to convey throughout the trial. Naturally fidgety, an “awesome” dad, as one of Paul’s friends put it, and generous to a fault — except, of course, to those he stole from, including the adult sons of his housekeeper, who were to receive $4.3 million from an insurance claim after she, too, died at Moselle, Murdaugh’s home. The money went to Murdaugh, instead.

To say that Murdaugh is a complex figure would be to understate the obvious. Either he’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or he’s insane, or he’s a psychopath, or he didn’t kill Maggie and Paul. What’s 100 percent certain to multiple witnesses who identified his voice on a video taken from Paul’s phone is that he was present at the scene just minutes before the murders. The only question is whether Murdaugh or someone else pulled the triggers on the two missing guns.

What this trial needs now isn’t a bomb threat but a bombshell, a sit-up-straight-in-your-hard-seat revelation that would clarify the motive or offer some as-yet-unheard proof. Suffice to say that here in Walterboro, the “Lowcountry’s front porch,” folks are hoping the bombshell’s name is Cousin Eddie.

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