WALTERBORO, S.C. — One of the last pieces of a legal dynasty that doled out justice in rural South Carolina for decades crumbled Friday as lawyer Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of his wife and son at their sprawling estate.
In the quiet Lowcountry that Murdaugh’s family had dominated since the days of Jim Crow, a judge talked to Murdaugh in a way that few probably have — not in his days playing college football, making millions as a high-powered attorney or gaining favor because of his name — and reminded Murdaugh that he had to remove the portrait of the defendant’s grandfather from its place of honor in that same courtroom to ensure a fair trial.
At sentencing, Murdaugh maintained his innocence, just as he did when he testified in his own defense during the six-week trial. But Judge Clifton Newman wanted to know if he saw the mangled bodies of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh as he tried to sleep or thought about how he disgraced his family’s three-generation reputation for justice through lying, stealing and — eventually — murder.
“As I tell you again, I respect this court. But I am innocent. I would never under any circumstances hurt my wife Maggie and I would never under any circumstances hurt my son Paul-Paul,” Murdaugh responded.
“And it might not have been you. It might have been the monster you become,” Newman said.
Murdaugh faced the judge in the Colleton County courtroom on the circuit where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather tried cases as the elected prosecutor for more than 80 years. Murdaugh’s family founded the area’s most powerful law firm a century ago in neighboring Hampton County. For decades, that meant that practically anyone who ended up in court — whatever side of the law they found themselves on — would have a Murdaugh either watching their back or staring them down.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters noted that stare each day in court.
“I looked in his eyes. He liked to stare me down as he would walk by me during this trial. And I could see the real Alex Murdaugh when he looked at me,” Waters said.
Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty in this case, and Newman handed down the harshest possible sentence he could — consecutive life sentences without parole.
“Over the past century, your family — including you — have been prosecuting people here in this courtroom, and many have received the death penalty, probably for lesser conduct,” the judge said.
Waters said none of the victims of the crime — members of Murdaugh’s family and the parents and relatives of his wife — wished to speak on behalf of the prosecution before sentencing. Murdaugh’s brother and surviving son sat behind him in the courtroom every day.
“After six weeks of trial, they came away more convinced he did not do this. They are steadfastly in his camp,” defense attorney Jim Griffin said after the hearing.
The jury deliberated for less than three hours Thursday before finding Murdaugh guilty of killing his 22-year-old son with two shotgun blasts and his 52-year-old wife with four or five rifle shots.
Juror Craig Moyer told ABC News that when deliberations began, the jury immediately took a poll that came back with nine guilty votes. It didn’t take long to convince the other three.
The juror agreed with prosecutors that the key piece of evidence was a video locked on his son’s cellphone for a year — video shot minutes before the killings at the same kennels near where the bodies would be found.
The voices of all three Murdaughs can be heard on the video, though Alex Murdaugh had insisted for 20 months that he hadn’t been at the kennels that night. When he took the stand in his own defense, the first thing he did was admit he had lied to investigators about being at the kennels, saying he was paranoid of law enforcement because he was addicted to opioids and had pills in his pocket the night of the killings.
“A good liar. But not good enough,” Moyer said.
And the apparent tears Murdaugh cried throughout the trial, even on the witness stand? Moyer said he didn’t buy them.
“All he did was blow snot,” Moyer said. “No tears. I saw his eyes. I was this close to him.”
Friday’s hearing again took place in a packed courtroom. The Murdaugh case has attracted true crime fans from around the world with its threads of power, danger, money and privilege.
Tracy Kinsinger came to the courthouse with a homemade sign reading “Murderer” that he made the night before.
“The truth is he brought shame upon himself, his family, the community, his profession,” Kinsinger said. “It’s disgraceful.”
Murdaugh didn’t look at the sign as he was hustled into the courthouse with his head down.
Prosecutors didn’t have the weapons used to kill the Murdaughs or other direct evidence like confessions or blood spatter. But they had a mountain of circumstantial evidence, including the video putting Murdaugh at the scene of the killings five minutes before his wife and son stopped using their cellphones forever.
Through more than 75 witnesses and nearly 800 pieces of evidence, jurors heard about betrayed friends and clients, Murdaugh’s failed attempt to stage his own death in an insurance fraud scheme, a fatal boat crash in which his son was implicated, the housekeeper who died in a fall in the Murdaugh home and the grisly scene of the killings.
The now-disbarred attorney admitted stealing millions of dollars from the family firm and clients, saying he needed the money to fund his drug habit. Before he was charged with murder, Murdaugh was in jail awaiting trial on about 100 other charges ranging from insurance fraud to tax evasion.
Defense attorneys said they will appeal, based largely on the judge allowing the evidence of crimes that Murdaugh has not been convicted of, which they say smeared his reputation.
“They had cast Alex as a despicable human being. And that was the reason they offered it,” Griffin said.
After sentencing, Murdaugh returned to the Colleton County jail to gather his possessions and will be taken to an evaluation center in Columbia for medical, mental health and education testing. In a month or so, he will move to a maximum security state prison like all new inmates serving life sentences.
Story by Jeffrey Collins and James Pollard