The defense rested in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial Monday afternoon after questioning its 14th witness, Alex’s brother John Marvin Murdaugh. The judge also granted a surprise request by the defense for the jury to visit in person the hunting estate where prosecutors say Alex killed his wife, Maggie, and son Paul in June 2021. It’s unclear exactly when that will happen, but it seems likely that the trial will continue into early March.
BuzzFeed News senior breaking news reporter David Mack has been covering the case since the beginning but is enjoying a much-needed vacation this week. Before he left, he agreed to answer my questions about his reporting on the twists and turns of the last six weeks of court.
This trial! Almost every day you’ve written a clear, concise, engaging post about everything that went down. How on earth did you keep up with the wild twists and turns — and also manage to stay awake during the granular data testimony about DNA, OnStar/GPS, cellphone usage, finances, etc.? How has this trial compared to other murder trials you’ve covered?
Thank you! It’s certainly not been easy to keep track of everything. The case is more complex than any other trial I can recall covering because of all the tangents that prosecutors say are central to understanding Alex’s alleged motive.
You’ve got Alex’s years of alleged thefts from his law firm and clients, as well as the boat case lawsuit, which was threatening to unmask his shady finances. Then there’s the theft of millions from the grieving family of the Murdaugh housekeeper who died in 2018 — not to mention Alex’s years of purported drug use or his botched attempt to have himself killed in order for his surviving son to receive an insurance payout. A main reason this trial went on for so long is because the judge ultimately agreed that the jury needed to hear about all these other things in order to properly understand what prosecutors say happened that night.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been keeping my own detailed notes about all these different scandals and the many different people either caught up in or affected by them. It hasn’t been easy!
Of course, there has also been a lot of detailed evidence presented at the trial by both the prosecution and the defense, and part of my job has been summarizing what can often feel highly technical and confusing. Admittedly, some of it has also been excruciatingly dull at times, so the jury has had my sympathies.
To that end, I’ve tried my best to write things in an engaging narrative format as much as possible. You might have noticed my articles tend to feel frequently like stories, where I introduce you to different characters at different times around the killings, then try to contextualize these people’s testimony within the larger case as I’ve seen it presented.
Tell me about any revelations and/or moments in the trial that made you gasp (or at least perk up/say “that’s a goddamn headline”)?
There’s been so many! The most obvious has been the video that investigators were eventually able to recover from Paul’s cellphone after working for months and months to crack his password. The 50 seconds of footage was the closest thing that authorities had to a smoking gun in the case and revealed Alex had not been truthful with police or with his family about the events of that night. He claimed he’d woken up from a nap before leaving to see his mother, but this video captured his voice down by the dog kennels just a few minutes before Maggie and Paul were killed.
It was really quite haunting to watch the video, knowing that it was the last piece of footage Paul would film and that it captured both him and his mother in the final minutes of their lives. It was also remarkable to watch witness after witness — many of whom had known Alex for years and were extremely close with him — testify that they could hear his voice in the footage. What must they have felt as they essentially helped place him at the murder scene?
For a few days, I was also quite obsessed with trying to decipher the audio of Alex with investigators in which he appeared to talk about Paul and either say “I did him so bad” or “They did him so bad.” Playing it for some of my colleagues, we could all hear different things. It was such a surprising piece of evidence, but I do believe its importance probably faded as the trial went on and the jury heard from more people.
Personally, I found the most shocking revelations to be that those closest to Alex began becoming suspicious or unnerved by his behavior. Both his housekeeper at the time of the murder and his mother’s caretaker testified about discussions they’d had with Alex in which they felt he was trying to pressure them to mirror his version of events of that night. Additionally, Maggie’s sister felt that Alex was behaving oddly and had misplaced priorities in the days after. Finally, it was shocking to learn that Alex’s own brother had been the one to call authorities after the botched suicide-for-hire plot to report that Alex was doing suspicious things while being treated in the hospital. So much has been written during this entire Murdaugh case about just how influential this family was and how much power they had amassed over generations. It thus felt shocking to me to see cracks emerge in the family unit from the witness stand.
What did you think of Murdaugh’s reactions in the courtroom?
It’s hard to say. He consistently appeared extremely upset and distressed whenever Maggie or Paul’s wounds or autopsies were discussed, but he also tried to restrain his emotions as much as possible so as not to be seen to be doing too much. If he was innocent, I can’t imagine how distressing that was. But if he’s guilty, it was certainly a smart strategy.
Most interesting to me was observing how much he appeared to be conferring with his own defense attorneys, even advising them at points. This is a man who has worked as a prosecutor himself and has extensive trial experience, so it was fascinating to watch him participate in his own defense.
Whose testimony did you find especially compelling and why?
There had been so much written before the trial about how influential the Murdaugh name was in the community and how much power and wealth Alex enjoyed. To that end, I thought the most compelling and devastating witnesses for him were those who were often much lower in status or privilege. There was his mother’s caretaker, his own housekeeper, his paralegal, and the son of the former housekeeper whom Murdaugh had admitted to stealing from.
There was also the attorney for the family of Mallory Beach, the young girl killed in the 2019 boat crash for which Paul had been charged. That attorney specifically spoke about how Beach’s parents had been enraged by seeing Alex and Maggie Murdaugh enjoy special access at the scene of the crash, as well as in the hospital after. It felt like an awful bit of comeuppance that now this same attorney was testifying at Alex’s murder trial.
I think the most emotional testimony came from Marian Proctor, Maggie’s sister. We saw Buster and some of Alex’s siblings sit behind him every day in the trial, but here was Maggie’s sister now describing how she’d been a little suspicious — or, at the very least, confused — by his behavior in the days after the killings. You really got the sense as she testified that she didn’t know whether to believe him anymore or not — especially because she testified that she discovered the extent of his lies after his failed suicide attempt.
Personally, though, I found Jeanne Seckinger, the chief financial officer at Murdaugh’s former law firm, to be the most compelling — maybe because she was the witness who most evidently disdained him. Her anger in ultimately discovering Alex’s many alleged thefts was plain to see, and she really laid out in extensive detail just how much he allegedly stole. By this point in the trial, we’d heard from a bunch of witnesses about what a great father and husband Alex was, but now here was Seckinger openly telling the jury that despite working with him for years, she now feels that she never truly knew him because of all his deceptions.
On the technical side of things, I thought it was a smart strategy from the prosecution to end their case with a timeline document that recapped all the forensic evidence the jury had heard so far. There were so many odd little things that the document revealed about that night, but I found the most potentially incriminating to be Alex’s phone recording him practically running shortly after the killings.
Was there a time when you thought, OK, this guy is getting off — or alternatively, that the jury had to return a guilty verdict?
As I write this, the defense is still presenting their case and we haven’t begun closing arguments, so there’s only so much I can confidently say. But I’ve honestly gone back and forth as to whether I believe he’ll be convicted or not.
This case is lacking any direct witnesses and even the murder weapons haven’t been located. On the surface, it also makes little sense for someone as seasoned a lawyer as Alex to kill his family in order to divert attention away from himself. Surely he would know that any murder investigation would likely focus deeply on him as the husband and father of the victims?
But…I must admit that the prosecution’s case has also felt convincing. There’s a ton of circumstantial evidence that they’ve laid out for the jury, which essentially will force them to ask themselves what’s more likely: whether they believe all these horrible coincidences all occurred on the same day or whether they believe Alex was behind them all.
In the end, it will only take one jury member who doesn’t buy the state’s case for things to end in a mistrial. If that happens, I don’t know whether the state will bring it back to trial, given how long this took and how expensive it undoubtedly was. Remember: Alex is also going to go to trial on dozens and dozens of other alleged financial crimes. It’s likely he’s going to spend a significant period of his life behind bars. But it remains to be seen whether any of that will be for the murder of his wife and son.
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