The long-awaited double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh — the scion of one of South Carolina’s once most powerful legal dynasty, now accused of killing his wife and son — begins Monday at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, SC.
The high-profile trial is expected to last for three weeks, set in a courthouse marked by a prominent Confederate memorial out front.
Area residents are split on whether Murdaugh, 54, will be convicted or acquitted in the brutal slayings, in large part because his main attorney, Dick Harpootlian, is considered one of the best criminal defense trial lawyers in the state.
The well-connected Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a sitting state Senator, has more than 100 murder cases under his belt — first as a prosecutor and then as defender.
State prosecutor Creighton Waters, meanwhile, is known more for going after cases of public corruption and financial wrongdoing. Murdaugh is also facing 99 separate charges of financial fraud that will be handled later.
Waters has to prove in a case that is largely circumstantial: that Murdaugh murdered his family to distract from his rapidly-unraveling financial schemes that allegedly involved tax evasion, forgery, money laundering and fraud.
He also has to prove that Murdaugh used two different guns.
Maggie Murdaugh, 52, was shot multiple times with a high-powered rifle and received a bullet wound, execution-style, to the back of her head while she was lying face down on the ground. Son Paul was shot in the head with a shotgun.
Waters must also prepare for accusations by the defense that the state has played fast and loose with the investigation.
A key piece of evidence, the white shirt that Murdaugh was wearing the night of the murders, was destroyed by the state, Murdaugh’s attorneys claimed in a November court filing. The state failed to preserve it after their forensic testing which meant the defense couldn’t examine it themselves.
The claims about the shirt — along with leaks by the state involving possible motive, geofencing data and alleged “spatter” evidence — are at the heart of a “campaign of selective and deceptive leaks to convince the public that Murdaugh is guilty before he is tried,” Murdaugh’s lawyers said in the filing.
“Waters is going up against a real heavyweight who’s a wizard in the courtroom,” said Columbia, SC, attorney Eric Bland, who represented the sons of the Murdaughs’ longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died under mysterious circumstances at the family’s home home in 2018. “This is also a case where there’s no eyewitness, no video, no real recording of a struggle or a fight.
“It’s also being tried in Colleton County where, in some corners, Alex is still revered and so is his family.”
But the events leading up to the trial would likely never have happened were it not for Murdaugh’s murdered bad-seed son, Paul — who had a sinister alter ego when drinking that his friends dubbed “Timmy.”
The troubled 22-year-old was facing trial on felony boat-driving charges (for a crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in Dec. 2019) when he was gunned down in cold blood along with his mother at the 1,700-acre Murdaugh country estate, Moselle, on June 7, 2021.
His friends detailed in court testimony how Paul turned into “Timmy.”
‘It’s a different name because he turns into a completely, totally different person,” Anthony Cook, Beach’s boyfriend, testified in the boat crash depositions. “So somebody will say, ‘All right. Here comes Timmy. We got to go.’”
Cook testified that a very intoxicated Paul transformed into “Timmy” the night of the boat crash, stripping down to his underwear in 40-degree weather and slapping and pushing his girlfriend, Morgan Doughty.
And when the motorboat that Paul was drunkenly piloting in the pitch-dark fog smashed into the bridge near Parris Island, hurling Beach into the water, it opened up a Pandora’s box involving the mighty Murdaugh dynasty.
Prosecutors say that a pre-trial hearing in the boat crash, which had been scheduled to take place several days after the murders, would have exposed Murdaugh’s criminal financial dealings — and was part of the motive that allegedly led Murdaugh to kill his wife and son.
For almost 90 years, the once-untouchable Murdaugh family ran the prosecutor’s offices in the five counties that make up the South Carolina Low Country while also running a powerhouse litigation firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED) with tentacles in the highest echelons of the red state — despite being Democrats.
The family survived and thrived over the years despite a generational streak of alcohol abuse and violence and a reputation for occasional corruption.
But reeling from the embarrassing revelations that Murdaugh allegedly stole an estimated $4 to $9 million from clients, the PMPED firm rebranded last month as the Parker Law Group. One of Murdaugh’s brothers, Randy, remains with the firm, which dominates tiny Hampton, SC.
Locals, who have been inundated with media from all over the world during the past 18 months, have gone from being tight-lipped and loyal to the Murdaughs in the days after the murders to eagerly participating in the raft of TV news specials and documentaries about the case.
“I go back and forth depending on the day,” said one of Hampton’s most connected residents, a source whose family has known the Murdaughs going back generations. “Right now I’m thinking Alex is going to be acquitted. People here don’t respect him the way they used to, but then again the murders are the over-the-top thing. If he’s found not guilty on that, they’ll forgive him for everything else.”
A possible wild card in the trial could be Curtis “Cousin Eddie” Smith, a friend, distant cousin and alleged conspirator of Murdaugh’s, who has been added to the potential witness list.
Smith, 63 and a former logger living on disability, entered the picture on Labor Day 2021 when he was arrested for supposedly trying to shoot Murdaugh on a rural road in Hampton County in a convoluted insurance fraud/suicide-for-hire scam. Murdaugh’s attorney later claimed his client had a 20-year opioid addiction and that Smith was his drug dealer.
Waters also said in court last August that money “misappropriated” by Murdaugh went through Smith, who’s in jail after being indicted with Murdaugh in late June on sweeping drug and conspiracy charges. From Smith, the AG said, the money “continued downstream” to two members of the Walterboro Cowboys gang. In September, a Cowboy gang member told The Post that Murdaugh “is running half the drugs in this county.”
Harpootlian and his co-counsel, Jim Griffin, claimed in a court filing last October that Smith committed the murders, saying he failed a polygraph test — which is usually not admissible in court — when questioned as to whether or not he killed Maggie and Paul.
“Because of the money conveyed to Eddie, he clearly has facts at his disposal that could prove very illuminating in court,” Joe McCulloch, the lawyer for 2019 boat-crash survivor Connor Cook, told The Post. “It’s likely the defense will call him to the stand [but] the prosecution will try to limit his involvement. Judge Newman is going to have his hands full with these horses.”
A surprising number of longtime observers of the case think Murdaugh has a chance of getting off.
“I think the reason they wanted a speedy trial is because they think Alex will be acquitted,” said Sandy Smith. the mother of Stephen Smith, whose mysterious 2015 death was re-opened for investigation after the murders of Maggie and Paul. Smith, along with others, believes that the Murdaughs may have been involved in her son’s death.
“The majority of people around here think he did it and want him to go down,” Smith told The Post. “But, unfortunately, Alex still has a lot of friends here as well and that may well help him get off.”
“Alex Murdaugh’s strategy is to protect every right he has, get the murders behind him and then take the financial fraud charges on a case-by-case basis,” said another longtime observer of the case. “He’s not as dumb as people think. No one is disputing that he’s a bad guy, but all these people who think he’s going to be found guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison are just spinning pipe dreams and fantasies to sell books and TV shows.”
Conspicuously absent from the public eye since June 2021 has been Maggie Murdaugh’s family. Her father, Terry Branstetter, and mother, Kennedy, have moved out of their Summerville, SC, home. Terry, 78, is reportedly in a nursing home. Maggie’s sister, Marian Branstetter Proctor, lives with her wealthy husband in Charleston. None of them have ever made a statement about the murders.
Alex and Maggie’s sole surviving child, Buster, has refused public comment as well. Little is known about the 26-year-old outside of photos showing him in Las Vegas with his uncle after the murders, and jailhouse tapes of fairly generic conversations between him and his incarcerated father.
“He doesn’t really talk about [the murders],” a childhood friend told PEOPLE of Buster. “I don’t think he knows what to believe.”
Locals said Maggie Murdaugh was well-liked but most people thought she spoiled her two boys, especially Paul.
“She sure spoiled Paul,” Hamptons resident Gabby Thomas told The Post in June 2021 shortly after the murders. “I heard him talk back to her once so bad in the beauty parlor once that I made him apologize.”
A longtime friend of the Murdaughs in Hampton said they were known for heavy drinking — and Alex and Maggie didn’t seem to care if their boys drank when they were still underage.
Anthony Cook said in his testimony involving the 2019 boat crash, which took place at Archer’s Creek near Parris Island off Beaufort, SC, that Paul’s friends first began calling him “Timmy” in 2015 when he was about 16.
“They would have been a lot better off without all the drinking,” the source told The Post. “But Paul was the one who really couldn’t handle his liquor.”
Paul, aka Timmy, could not have come to a worse end.
“His head exploded like a watermelon,” a source who viewed the death scene photos told Fitsnews, referring to Paul Murdaugh’s head wound. “I mean, you can see his face, but the rest of it — his head — it’s just gone. Totally empty.”
“They were picking pieces of his brain off the walls,” the source added.
But however grisly the deaths of Paul and his mother were, the two have become almost forgotten in the frenzied drama surrounding Alex Murdaugh.
“That may be the biggest challenge facing the prosecutors,” the source close to the case said. “You want the jury to know Paul and Maggie, to feel sorry for them, if they’re going to convict Alex. But Paul has been portrayed as a monster and Maggie has become almost a footnote. Someone needs to bring them back to life — at least in the courtroom.”