WALTERBORO, SC — Hotel rooms have been booked for weeks in this small South Carolina town about 50 miles west of Charleston, where some residents have listed their homes on Airbnb for hundreds of dollars a night.
In a parking lot across from the Colleton County Courthouse, food trucks will cater to an anticipated crowd of legal teams, law enforcement, the media and members of the public, from true crime enthusiasts to the curious, all converging for what a local newspaper has headlined “the trial of the century”.
That trial, against Alex Murdaugh, a scion of a well-connected legal family who is accused of murdering his wife, Margaret, and son, Paul, with a shotgun and rifle, is scheduled to begin Monday with jury selection. The trial frenzy could last a few weeks, and Court TV is promoting “deck-to-deck coverage.”
Since the night of June 7, 2021, when Murdaugh frantically called 911 to say he had found his wife and son shot to death near the kennels on their Colleton County property, the saga has generated attention as a double homicide without settle, but it soon escalated into broader allegations of financial fraud, a hitman-for-hire plot and drug addiction, and revived scrutiny of other curious deaths linked to the prominent family.
Few trials in recent memory have captivated this region of South Carolina, known as the Lowcountry, where for nearly a century the parents of three generations of Murdaughs wielded power as top prosecutors for a handful of counties. But the perceived spectacle means it’s not just Murdaugh’s on display, so is the county seat of Walterboro County, population 5,460.
“We didn’t want this, but it’s happening and it’s here,” Scott Grooms, downtown Walterboro’s director of tourism and development, said last week. “We have to put on our best face and take care of our guests.”
Grooms, a former television journalist who covered the trial of Susan Smith, the white South Carolina mother who had falsely told police that a black man had kidnapped her two young children in a carjacking earlier, was not The logistics of running a major trial are beyond him. confessing that she had drowned them in a lake.
Smith’s trial, imbued with racial overtones, was held in the small town of Union and sparked a wave of international interest and outsiders clamoring to visit the lake. Just 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 city was requesting food trucks to set up near the courthouse.
Almost immediately, comments were divided:
“Clowns and concessions, now all you need is a trapeze troupe to complete the three-ring circus.”
“This is so disrespectful.”
“It is better for our community to be perceived as ready rather than not.”
The cost of the trial was not immediately available, but in a city where the annual budget is around $7 million, there are necessary expenses such as police overtime, portable toilets, signage and fencing that need to be accounted for.
“We are ready to move on, we have to be,” Grooms said. Later, on his way to a meeting, he watched the latest news on a cell phone, wide-eyed: Netflix had just released a trailer for a documentary series on the case, titled “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.”
a winding case
The Murdaugh name is so ingrained in the Lowcountry that the Colleton County courthouse had to remove a portrait of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., Alex Murdaugh’s late grandfather and chief prosecutor for 46 years, from a back wall of the courtroom. court during the trial. . (Alex’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, had been seriously ill and died at 81, three days after Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were murdered, adding to the intrigue.)
While Alex Murdaugh, 54, was from neighboring Hampton County, he had also been a fixture on the Colleton County courthouse for years, having represented clients as a Lowcountry personal injury attorney before being disbarred last summer.
About 900 jury summons notices were issued in a county of about 38,600 people. With so much at stake, local officials want the process to go smoothly, so as not to trigger a mistrial.
Legal experts say jury selection in South Carolina is generally not protracted, but this is no ordinary trial, and Murdaugh’s defense team and the prosecution, led by Chief Prosecutor Creighton Waters of the Attorney General’s Office of the state, they will be especially strategic in seating the juries. If convicted, Murdaugh could face life in prison without parole.
It is unclear if the jury will be sequestered. Some wondered if the trial could even be delayed after a son of Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman, who is overseeing the trial, died earlier this month. Newman, one of the few black circuit court judges in South Carolina, has presided over other high-profile trials, including that of a white police officer, Michael Slager, who ultimately pleaded guilty to fatally shooting a black man, Walter Scott. in north Charleston.
During a pre-trial hearing in December, prosecutor Waters provided a possible motive for the crime, alleging that for years Murdaugh had planned and stolen an estimated $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims, including through his family’s firm and of clients, and he was so desperate to “escape responsibility” that he killed his wife and child, then covered it up to gain sympathy.
His financial situation took a turn for the worse in 2019, when Paul Murdaugh was involved in a boating accident that resulted in injuries and claimed the life of a 19-year-old passenger, Mallory Beach. His family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Murdaughs, the ship’s owners, and the convenience store chain that allegedly sold alcohol to underage occupants. A settlement agreement is pending.
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh had been awaiting trial for three felony boating under the influence of alcohol and was out on a $50,000 personal recognition bond.
“I think when this case started, a lot of people assumed it was a murder case and then with some white collar employees. [crime] running there,” Waters said at the pretrial hearing. “But the reality is, as we did this extensive investigation, we realized that this was a white collar case that culminated in two murders.”
But Murdaugh’s defense team, led by veteran attorneys Jim Griffin and Richard “Dick” Harpootlian, countered at the hearing that the state had not indicated it had evidence showing Murdaugh would gain a financial windfall from his wife’s death. and son, as a life insurance payment, nor that they knew of any alleged irregularity, which he tried to hide by killing them.
While proving motive isn’t necessary for the prosecution’s case, the defense will need to sift through the vast amount of evidence the state plans to present, including exposing how Murdaugh’s spiraling finances led to an unimaginable double murder, Dennis said. Bolt, a retired lawyer. at Columbia that he has served on cases with Harpootlian and Griffin.
Another question remains: Will Murdaugh testify in his own defense?
Don’t discount it, Bolt said. “In 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.”
Throughout downtown Walterboro, where law firms, quaint antique shops and empty storefronts line the street, the upcoming trial has some residents anxious about what the community’s perception will be.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Patti Lohr, 66, as she stopped at a jewelry store to check on Lewis and Arlene Harris, the former owners. “I don’t want us to look like idiots because of this man,” referring to Murdaugh.
“All this attention,” Lohr said, “is going to be a zoo.”
“A circus would describe it better than a zoo,” added Arlene Harris. “A circus with three rings”.
The last time Walterboro, with its antebellum colonnaded houses and towering oak trees thick with Spanish moss, saw such an uproar was when Hollywood came to town: scenes from Tom Hanks’ sweeping 1994 classic “Forrest Gump” were filmed here. “, as did the 1993 sports drama “Radio.”
In recent months, Walterboro residents got a taste of the renewed appreciation when news trucks rolled into the Colleton County courthouse for hearings involving Murdaugh. Murdaugh remains being held on $7 million bond on the finance-related charges.
The Rev. Leon Maxwell, who presides over St. Peter’s AME Church, which was founded in 1867 and is Colleton County’s oldest black church, said he has been following the case closely and will tune in to the trial on television. While he did not know Alex Murdaugh personally, he said few with long-standing ties to the area had not been touched by the Murdaugh orbit in one way or another.
In quiet conversations, some wonder if the justice system will treat Murdaugh differently because of his family’s prestige, Maxwell said.
“I think about this from a biblical perspective: What will a man prosper if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” said Maxwell, reciting the scriptures. “That’s not just for Mr. Murdaugh. That’s for everyone. Are we willing to sell our soul for worldly pleasures? How much will it cost us in the end?