Walterboro, South Carolina
Alex Murdaugh testified in his double murder trial Thursday, admitting he lied to investigators when he said he was not at the scene of his wife and son’s killings before they were fatally shot in June 2021.
Within moments of taking the stand, Murdaugh acknowledged his voice is heard in a video that appeared to be filmed at the dog kennels where the bodies of Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh were found, saying he lied about being at the kennels earlier that evening because of “paranoid thinking” stemming from his drug addiction.
That video has become a cornerstone of the state’s case, and prosecutors have used it to put Murdaugh at the scene minutes before they say Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were killed, contradicting his repeated statements to law enforcement that he had not been there that night. Over the course of the trial, numerous witnesses have identified Murdaugh’s voice in the background of the footage, recorded by Paul at 8:44 p.m. on June 7, 2021.
“Mr. Murdaugh, is that you on the kennel video at 8:44 p.m. on June 7,” defense attorney Jim Griffin asked, “the night Maggie and Paul were murdered?”
“It is,” said Murdaugh, conceding he lied to investigators from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in at least three separate interviews.
“I did lie to them,” he said, blaming his addiction to opiate painkillers. “I wasn’t thinking clearly,” he added. “I don’t think I was capable of reason, and I lied about being down there, and I’m so sorry that I did.”
Still, Murdaugh was emphatic in his denial that he shot and killed his wife and son, insisting in response to Griffin’s questions, “I didn’t shoot my wife or my son, anytime, ever.”
Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the killings of his wife and son at the family’s estate – a property known as Moselle – in Islandton, South Carolina. Prior to Thursday, Murdaugh had repeatedly denied being at the scene, telling investigators he visited his mother and found the bodies when he returned home later that night.
Prosecutors accuse Murdaugh of killing his wife and son to distract from an array of alleged financial crimes, for which the now-disbarred attorney separately faces another 99 charges. They rested their case last week after calling more than 60 witnesses, working to show, without direct evidence, Murdaugh lied to investigators.
The defense maintains Murdaugh – the scion of a powerful South Carolina family who held the local solicitor’s office for three generations – is a caring father who has been wrongly accused of the killings after a sloppy investigation. Now they’re tasked with persuading a jury Murdaugh is telling the truth about the killings while acknowledging he was dishonest about other parts of his life.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters was quick to highlight Murdaugh’s apparent duplicity during cross-examination, asking Murdaugh if he agreed Thursday was the first time law enforcement and prosecutors heard him say he lied about being at the kennels.
“Yes,” Murdaugh said. “I’m aware of that.”
“All this time later,” Waters said, “this is the first time you’ve ever said that?”
Murdaugh was sworn in Thursday morning, promising to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” soon after telling Judge Clifton Newman he wanted to testify, prompting an audible, collective gasp from the gallery in the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.
Murdaugh opted to take the stand despite Newman’s decision to deny a defense request to limit the scope of questioning Murdaugh will face under cross-examination, specifically in regard to his alleged financial crimes, which the state has pointed to as a possible motive for the killings. Newman ruled he would not issue a blanket order limiting the state’s questions, calling it “unheard of.”
The judge previously ruled to allow prosecutors to present evidence related to Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes, which the defense has argued are irrelevant to the murder case. The state, however, contends the purported misconduct was about to be revealed at the time of the killings and that he fatally shot his wife and son in order to stave off those looming revelations.
Murdaugh admitted Thursday to stealing from his law firm and his clients, ultimately leading to his resignation from the firm, then known as PMPED and since renamed Parker Law Group. Several members of the firm have testified in-depth about discovering Murdaugh’s alleged misdeeds.
“How did you get in such a financial predicament that led you to steal money that wasn’t yours?” Griffin asked.
“I’m not quite sure how I let myself get where I got,” Murdaugh said, but he again indicated it was due to his addiction that originated with a knee injury he suffered playing football in college. “I battled that addiction for so many years. I was spending so much money on pills.”
Waters pressed Murdaugh about his theft during cross-examination, asking about instances in which Murdaugh stole from people he represented in civil cases as a plaintiff’s attorney.
Waters outlined one case after another where he said Murdaugh misled his clients – a teenage girl hurt in a car accident, a man rendered a quadriplegic in the same wreck, two underage girls whose mother was killed in another accident – and took money on top of the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars his firm was already owed in legal fees.
Presented with each case, Murdaugh did not dispute he had taken the money.
“I admit, candidly, in all of these cases, Mr. Waters, that I took money that was not mine, and I shouldn’t have done it,” Murdaugh said. “I hate the fact that I did it. I’m embarrassed by it. I’m embarrassed for my son. I’m embarrassed for my family, and I don’t dispute that I did it.”
Murdaugh testified he went to the Moselle kennels at Maggie’s request the night of the killings, but that he didn’t want to go. He had already showered, he said, and changed his clothes after sweating during a ride with Paul around the property earlier that evening – undercutting questions raised by the state about what he was wearing that night.
A Snapchat video filmed by Paul while they surveyed the property showed Murdaugh wearing long khaki pants and a blue, short-sleeved button-down shirt. But he was wearing shorts and a white T-shirt when law enforcement responded later that night.
“It was hot, and I had just had a shower. I knew that I would end up doing more work and sweating more. And the dogs is always a chaotic scene,” Murdaugh said Thursday. “I just didn’t want to go right then.”
He ultimately decided to go, he said. He took a golf cart to the kennels, where Maggie had let out the dogs while Paul was “fooling” with the tail of one dog that belonged to his friend.
Murdaugh soon returned to the house and laid down on the couch, he said. Murdaugh wasn’t sure if he dozed off, but when he got up, he decided to visit his ailing mother at her home in nearby Almeda.
Murdaugh said he spoke earlier that day to one of his mother’s caregivers, Barbara Mixson, who testified Wednesday she told Murdaugh to visit because his mother was “agitated.”
Murdaugh knocked on the door when he arrived, he said, but called the other caregiver, Mushell Smith, to be let in. Murdaugh believed Smith didn’t hear him knocking, he said. Smith previously testified the timing of the nighttime visit was unusual.
Griffin asked Murdaugh about GPS data from his vehicle that showed the car stopped for about a minute while in his mother’s driveway. Asked if he was disposing of murder weapons or bloody clothes, Murdaugh said, “No.”
Murdaugh went back to Moselle, where he said he first went to the house. Maggie and Paul weren’t there, he said, and Murdaugh assumed they were still at the kennels, so he went there.
“What’d you see?” Griffin asked.
“I saw what y’all have seen pictures of,” Murdaugh told the jury, referring to his wife and son’s bodies, growing emotional and wiping away tears. “So bad.”
Murdaugh recalled calling 911 and “trying to tend” to Paul and Maggie, going back and forth between them while on the phone. Paul’s injuries were particularly bad, Murdaugh said, and he recalled trying to check his son’s body for a pulse and trying to turn him over.
“I don’t know why I tried to turn him over,” an emotional Murdaugh said. “I mean, my boy’s laying face down. He’s done the way he’s done. His head was the way his head was. I could see his brain laying on the sidewalk. I didn’t know what to do.”
Griffin played an audio recording of the 911 call, in which Murdaugh was heard saying, “I should’ve known” – a reference, Murdaugh testified, to the purported threats his son was receiving after a February 2019 boating accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach.
Paul pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in the accident, and court records show the charges were dropped after his death. Murdaugh, who owned the boat, was facing a civil lawsuit from Beach’s family.
“He got the most vile threats,” Murdaugh said Thursday, describing social media messages that were “so over the top, truthfully, we didn’t think anything about it.”
Body camera footage played during the first day of the prosecution’s case showed Murdaugh telling a Colleton County Sheriff’s Office sergeant about the accident and the threats, unprompted, within moments of the deputy arriving on the scene. Murdaugh’s surviving son similarly described the threats when he testified earlier this week.
Murdaugh rebutted earlier testimony about data collected from his cell phone, which showed he searched Google for a restaurant in Edisto Beach, read a group text message soon after finding the bodies and called a videographer.
Any of those actions were “unintentional,” he said, adding he was trying to call his brothers and a family friend. “I’m not trying to call those people. I’m not doing a Google search for any Whaley’s restaurant and I’m certainly not reading any text.”
Murdaugh also rejected the suggestion he had blood on his shirt after the shooting, saying there was “no way.”
“I was nowhere near Paul and Maggie when they got shot,” he said.
During cross-examination, Waters portrayed Murdaugh as someone who used his family’s legacy to receive special treatment from law enforcement.
Waters asked Murdaugh about his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, each of whom served as the solicitor for the 14th Circuit and oversaw prosecutions across a swath of the South Carolina Lowcountry. They held the office for 87 consecutive years, cementing the Murdaughs, in Waters’ words, as a “central part of the legal community.”
For a time, Murdaugh himself wanted to be the solicitor, he testified. But he only ever served as a volunteer assistant solicitor under his father and then his father’s successor, he said.
Still, Murdaugh kept the badge he received as a volunteer assistant solicitor in his vehicle, he said, acknowledging he would “get better treatment” if he were pulled over. He also had blue lights installed in his vehicle, owned by the law firm, Murdaugh said, adding he had received permission from local law enforcement.
Asked if he had the badge with him after Paul’s boat accident when he went to the hospital, Murdaugh said he didn’t believe he did: He wasn’t working in an official capacity, he said.
Waters submitted into evidence a still image from surveillance footage at the hospital, showing a badge hanging out of his pocket.
“Did you want some advantage for wearing it like that?” Waters asked.
“Did I hang it out of my pocket when I wanted an advantage? I may have. I certainly may have,” Murdaugh said, testifying a badge has a “warming effect with other law enforcement.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Alex Murdaugh’s last name.