When Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Maggie, were shot dead at their family hunting lodge in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region on June 7, 2021, attention soon turned to something that had occurred two years prior.
In 2019, Paul had been charged over a deadly boat accident that claimed the life of one of his friends. The young Murdaugh was said to have been extremely drunk when he drove at high speed into a bridge at night, killing 19-year-old Mallory Beach.
The incident had prompted something of a reckoning for the Murdaughs, a family who had enjoyed generations of control and influence over the local legal system. In addition to the charges against Paul, Beach’s family was also suing Alex Murdaugh over the teen’s death, alleging that the father had been negligent. Suddenly, it seemed like the powerful Murdaughs might face some consequences.
So when Paul and Maggie were shot dead by an unknown assailant, there was almost instant speculation that it might have been by someone seeking revenge. Some of this speculation came from Alex himself, who immediately told authorities that his son had been receiving threats over the boat crash. “I know that’s what this is,” Alex said to the first officer on scene.
But as the conjecture increased in the days after the murders, Mark Tinsley, the attorney representing the Beach family in their lawsuit against Alex, came to a realization of his own.
“Initially — probably the first week — there was the shock and horror of what had happened and nobody really thought about anything other than that,” Tinsley testified in court on Monday. “But pretty quickly I recognized that the case against Alex, if he were the victim of a vigilante, would in fact be over.”
This, prosecutors have contended, was exactly Alex’s plan. There was no vigilante seeking revenge, they say — just a desperate man who wanted people to think there was.
Facing a mounting series of legal and financial problems that were all crescendoing at once, Alex killed his wife and son to buy himself time and sympathy, according to prosecutors.
Central to this “perfect storm” of problems Alex was experiencing was the boat crash lawsuit, which was due to have a court hearing on June 10 to determine, in part, whether Alex would essentially have to open up his finances for review — scrutiny that could have exposed his many financial misdeeds and what he has said was a decadeslong drug addiction.
“If the hearing takes place on June 10, 2021, what is the net effect of what could happen with that?” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters asked Tinsley at Alex’s murder trial in Colleton County.
“The discovery of everything he’s done,” Tinsley said.
“That’s the Judgment Day,” Tinsley added. “And there were a lot of threads that were being pulled and it was subject to unraveling at any moment.”
Alex has pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering his wife and son, with his defense team arguing that the prosecution’s case against him is rooted in theory, not fact.
But the defense suffered a huge defeat on Monday when Judge Clifton Newman ruled that the jury should hear evidence the prosecution wanted to introduce about Alex’s perilous financial and legal situation. That includes details about the boat crash lawsuit as well as allegations he stole from his law firm, his clients, and the grieving family of the longtime housekeeper, who died in an accident at the same Murdaugh hunting lodge in 2018.
Typically, such evidence wouldn’t be allowed to be admitted because it could be prejudicial if it were being used to show that Alex had a criminal tendency or bad character.
But after hearing days of testimony from witnesses, including Tinsley, about Alex’s financial mess without the jury present, the judge announced that he agreed with prosecutors that this evidence fell under an important exception because it went to Alex’s alleged motive.
“I find that the jury is entitled to consider that the apparent desperation of Mr. Murdaugh because of his dire financial situation — the threat of being exposed for committing the crimes which he was later charged with — resulted in the commission of the alleged crimes,” Newman said.
“It is so intimately connected with, and explanatory of, the crime charged that proof of it is essential to complete the story,” Newman said.
The judge’s decision is likely to add several days to the duration of the trial, given that more than half a dozen witnesses will now need to repeat their testimony for the jury. That will include Tinsley, who explained in detail on Monday how the lawsuit against Alex by the Beach family began and progressed.
Tinsley said he believed that Alex was underinsured, with his policies only able to pay out $500,000 to each victim of the crash, whether they survived or died. So to try to pressure the Murdaughs to pay the Beach family a more significant sum, Tinsley sued Alex in his personal capacity — something that he said caused shock and anger from Alex and his associates.
“There was a lot of grumbling and shock that I’m actually going to hold Alex personally responsible,” Tinsley said.
At a 2019 legal conference, Tinsley said Alex even confronted him about the lawsuit, getting in his face and saying that he thought they were friends. “I took it as he tried to intimidate me…and sort of bully me into backing off,” Tinsley said.
As he tried to pressure Alex to settle the case, Tinsley said he warned him that mock juries to whom they had presented the lawsuit had been extremely sympathetic to the Beach family. Alex, though, continued to insist he was broke and could only really “cobble together” $1 million. But Tinsley said he found this impossible to believe because he knew that Alex was continuing to make money as an attorney.
When Alex continued to stonewall, Tinsley filed a court motion in October 2020, asking the judge to force Alex to list all his bank accounts and finances. After various delays, the hearing on that court motion was scheduled for June 10, 2021.
But when the killings took place and people suspected they were the work of an unknown vigilante, Tinsley said he believed he would need to end the lawsuit as quickly as possible. Suddenly, he felt that any prospective jury would likely feel immense sympathy for Alex.
“If you represent Attila the Hun versus some sweet old grandmother, nobody’s going to give Atilla the Hun money. They would give money to some sweet grandmother,” Tinsley said. “So if Alex had been victimized by a vigilante, nobody would have brought a verdict back against Alex.”
The jury did hear evidence from other witnesses on Monday, including Muschelle Smith, who had worked as a caregiver for Alex’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Alex has said he discovered Maggie and Paul’s bodies when he returned from a late-night visit from his mother’s home.
Smith, who had worked nights caring for the Murdaugh matriarch for two years at the time of the killings, testified that it was unusual for Alex to make a visit at that late hour. However, under cross-examination, she said it had been an unusual day because Alex’s father had just been taken to a hospital and was seriously ill.
Smith said Alex arrived out of the blue, stayed for about 20 minutes, and was “fidgety.” But Alex’s defense team later had Smith concede that he was typically a restless and fidgety person.
Days later, Smith said Alex made a point of emphasizing to her that he’d been with his mother for 30–40 minutes, which disturbed her enough that she called her brother. “I was nervous,” Smith recalled.
She also said Alex had mentioned he might be able to help with expenses for her upcoming wedding — something he’d previously never spoken about with her — and with trying to get her a promotion at her second job at a local school.
A few days later, Smith said Alex arrived at his mother’s home at 6:30 a.m. and was cradling something blue in his hands that looked like a tarp. Prosecutors have said they collected a blue raincoat from Alex’s mother’s home that was covered in gunshot residue, but his defense lawyers had Smith say repeatedly that she had seen a tarp, not a raincoat.
Smith appeared highly emotional and scared on the stand, telling the court that she considered all the Murdaughs, including Alex, to be good people.
“He was just being nice, wasn’t he?” defense attorney Jim Griffin asked Smith about Alex’s offer to pay for her wedding.
“Yes," Smith responded.
“They're a good family and I loved working there,” she said, “and I’m sorry all this happened.”