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On the stand, Alex Murdaugh denies the murders as prosecutors press him on his lies

Disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh faced hours of cross-examination by prosecutor Creighton Waters during his murder trial in the 2021 deaths of his wife and son.
Joshua Boucher
/
The State via AP
Disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh faced hours of cross-examination by prosecutor Creighton Waters during his murder trial in the 2021 deaths of his wife and son.

Updated February 24, 2023 at 5:00 PM ET

The murder trial of disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh has produced moments of high drama and surprise — but Murdaugh's turn on the stand in his own defense surpassed all that came before.

Murdaugh, the 54-year-old scion of a family with influence and wealth, is accused of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22, in June 2021 at the family's hunting estate in South Carolina's rural Lowcountry.

He is being tried at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, facing two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. If convicted, he faces a potential sentence of life in prison.

Over the course of six hours of cross-examination on Thursday and Friday, prosecutor Creighton Waters pressed Murdaugh about his financial crimes, his opioid addiction and his whereabouts on the night of the killings.

And he hounded Murdaugh about his many lies over the years — lies to clients, lies to coworkers and lies to law enforcement — in an effort to erode Murdaugh's credibility with the jury after the bombshell admission that he had lied about his alibi.

Even as Murdaugh acknowledged that he had stolen money and lied to authorities, he repeatedly denied murdering his wife and son.

"I would never hurt Maggie Murdaugh, I would never hurt Paul Murdaugh, under any circumstances," he said.

During his testimony, Murdaugh offered multiple explanations for his decision to lie to investigators: He was paranoid due to his drug use, he said. Questions about his family relationships and a test for gun residue made him feel like a suspect, he said. He didn't trust the law enforcement agency leading the investigation due to previous encounters, he explained, too.

Then, in a final dramatic moment Friday, prosecutors played body camera footage recorded by an officer who responded to the scene immediately after Murdaugh had called 911.

In the video, an officer can be heard asking a distraught Murdaugh when the last time he was with or spoke to his wife and son.

In reality, Murdaugh had been with them shortly before the killings, video evidence would later show. But on the recording, Murdaugh said otherwise.

"It was earlier tonight," Murdaugh can be heard responding. "I don't know the exact time, but I left. I was probably gone an hour and a half for my mom's, and I saw them about 45 minutes before that."

Choosing to lie to investigators so soon after the deaths beggared belief about his other explanations, Waters argued. "You still told the same lie, and all those reasons that you just gave this jury about the most important part of your testimony was a lie too," the prosecutor said.

Shortly after, Murdaugh testified that he would have killed himself rather than his family. "I can promise you I would hurt myself before I would hurt one of them, without a doubt," he said.

The trial is set to continue Monday.

Murdaugh's shifting version of events is attacked

Before the trial, Murdaugh had repeatedly said he was not present at the dog kennels with his wife and son in the moments before authorities say they were shot and killed. Rather, he and his lawyers had previously said, Murdaugh was napping on the couch and went to see his mother during the time the murders were committed. In Thursday's dramatic court appearance, Murdaugh admitted that he had, in fact, gone to the kennels.

On Friday, the prosecutor pressed Murdaugh about his lies to authorities about "the last time you supposedly saw your wife and child."

"You told this jury how cooperative you've been and how much information you wanted to provide, but you left out the most important parts, didn't you?" Waters asked.

"I left out that, I sure did," Murdaugh replied.

Exchanges between Waters and Murdaugh repeatedly turned testy. As the two went back and forth about Murdaugh's last minutes with his wife and son, Waters faulted Murdaugh for being "fuzzy" on details.

Earlier, Waters asked if Murdaugh had ever told the truth about the kennels to his family, his law partners or any authorities.

"Yesterday is the first time that I have said that openly," Murdaugh said.

Waters accused Murdaugh of habitually refusing to tell the truth, saying he "had to back up and make a new story" to cover his actions when new facts emerged.

"You've been able to lie quickly, and easily, and convincingly if you think it'll save your skin for well over a decade," Waters later said.

Repeatedly, Waters asked Murdaugh to identify the moment where he decided to lie to investigators, as he replayed video excerpts of Murdaugh's previous interviews with police.

Waters began with the first interrogation by lead South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigator David Owen, held in a car hours after the killings.

"I knew she had gone to the kennel," Murdaugh said in the recording, which was played for the jury. In the video, he glanced at Owen in the driver's seat and added, "I was at the house."

Then, in a June 10 interview with Owen and other investigators, Murdaugh was asked to confirm that "the last time that you saw Maggie and Paul was when y'all were eating supper."

"Yes sir," he replied then.

Murdaugh has since testified that he lied to police and was in fact present at the kennels just before authorities say that his wife and son were killed.

Recounting the evening of the attacks

The prosecutor asked Murdaugh to give a full accounting of his "new story" (a description Waters repeatedly used, and with which Murdaugh disagreed).

Together, the two moved through the timeline leading up to the attack, which authorities estimate took place around 9 p.m. that evening.

Murdaugh testified that he returned home from work around 6:45 p.m., after which he and his son Paul rode around the property. Later, Murdaugh returned to the main house, he said, by which time his wife had arrived home. Murdaugh said he took a shower, then sat on a couch to eat dinner.

Paul and Maggie then went down to the dog kennels, he said, where he joined them after a brief rest at the house.

Asked if he had told his wife of his plans to visit his mother that night, Murdaugh replied, "I don't believe so."

Murdaugh said he spent most of his time at the kennels that night sitting in the golf cart. He briefly left the golf cart to take a chicken from his dog Bubba's mouth, he said.

Waters asked if the dogs were barking, or otherwise acting as though there could be another person in the area, Murdaugh said no.

"There wasn't nobody around that the dogs didn't know," Murdaugh said, adding, "There was nobody else around for them to sense."

Asked what he and Maggie spoke about while they were together at the kennels, Murdaugh replied, "I don't know."

Phone and car records show bursts of movement

On Friday afternoon, testimony turned to the subject of cell phone records for the three Murdaughs — Alex, Maggie and Paul — on the night of the killings.

Cell phone location data shows that Murdaugh did not bring his phone down to the kennels, Waters said. Murdaugh acknowledged that he "must not have" had his phone, adding that it was not unusual for him to leave his phone in the house.

Around 8:45 p.m., Paul's phone recorded a video of a friend's dog as his father's voice could be heard in the background. The video, much discussed in this month-old trial, prompted the elder Murdaugh to change his narrative about where he was that night.

Around 8:49 p.m., Paul and Maggie's phones, which location data showed to be at the kennels, were locked for the last time. Then, from 8:53:15 to 8:55:32, data shows that Maggie's phone moved 59 steps. The phone's orientation also changed, going from portrait to landscape and back several times, prosecutors said.

During that time, Alex Murdaugh's phone had been immobile at the main house. But starting at 9:02 p.m., data from Murdaugh's phone showed that it moved 283 steps in four minutes.

Asked about those movements, Murdaugh testified he was getting ready to go to his mother's house but provided no details about that process in spite of continuous prodding by Waters.

"What were you so busy doing?" Waters asked.

Murdaugh said he wasn't sure before responding: "I know what I wasn't doing, Mr. Waters. And what I wasn't doing is, doing anything as I believe you've implied, that I was cleaning off or washing off guns, putting guns in a raincoat."

In that four-minute span, Murdaugh also called Maggie twice, records show. Asked if he deleted any calls from his phone's records, Murdaugh said, "Not intentionally."

Waters suggested that "the real reason" for the flurry of phone calls was Murdaugh's attempt "to manufacture an alibi."

Murdaugh disagreed, saying he "did not and would not hurt my wife and my child."

Noting that he had just left Maggie at the nearby kennels and had then failed to get her on the phone, Waters asked why Murdaugh didn't just swing by the kennels to speak with her. "She's so close, and there's a driveway right there," Waters said.

"There was no reason to," Murdaugh replied. He added that he had been calling to say he was leaving and would be back.

Murdaugh's financial crimes and courtroom behavior

Waters began the day by asking Murdaugh about his financial crimes, emphasizing the millions of dollars he stole from clients at his law firm. Murdaugh acknowledged that in the years leading up to the 2021 killings, his stealing increased.

When Waters asked if Murdaugh stole $3.7 million in 2019, he replied, "I think that's correct."

Waters asked Murdaugh — himself a seasoned trial lawyer who has regularly made eye contact with members of the jury — whether he looked his clients in the eye as he deceived them.

Murdaugh replied, "Every single client, I looked them in the eye," admitting that people had trusted him to work on their behalf.

The topic then turned to Murdaugh's opioid addiction, which he said he spent years battling.

In the months before the slayings, Murdaugh said, there were days when he took more than 60 pills a day. At the time, he said, he was buying various types of 30-milligram pills of oxycodone.

"I always had them on me," he said of the pills.

The prosecutor later asked Murdaugh whether he had asked Maggie to come to Moselle to stay with him — as both Maggie's sister and the family housekeeper have testified. But Murdaugh insisted he hadn't specifically asked her to come from their house at Edisto Beach that night.

Thursday's session touched on financial accusations

Murdaugh has already admitted under oath that he repeatedly lied to police investigating the killings of his wife and son and that he stole settlement money from clients.

The prosecution resumed cross-examination one day after Waters peppered Murdaugh with questions about his years spent deceiving clients. With the jury looking on, Waters repeatedly asked Murdaugh about how he enriched himself with millions of dollars meant to help regular people cope with life-changing accidents.

On the stand, Murdaugh repeatedly said he could not remember details or precise conversations — but he declined to dispute the prosecutor's accounts of the misdeeds.

Waters also questioned Murdaugh about a solicitor's badge he carried for years — a credential he received from his father when he volunteered at the circuit solicitor's office that elder generations of the Murdaugh family led for some 86 years.

Waters displayed a photo of Murdaugh wearing the badge as he spoke to people on the night of his son Paul's boating accident in 2019, which left one woman dead. That event thrust the family into an unwelcome spotlight, and Murdaugh has said he believes it is linked to the execution-style slayings.

Murdaugh also acknowledged keeping the badge handy in his car, in case he was pulled over, for instance.

"A badge has a warming effect with other law enforcement," Murdaugh said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.