Convicted former attorney Alex Murdaugh’s decision to take a stand in his double murder trial wasn’t entirely surprising given his family’s legal heritage stretches back to the early 1900s on the South Carolina coast.
But legal experts say it ended up being a costly maneuver for the scion of the well-connected Murdaugh clan, which has pursued crime in the state’s rural lowlands for three consecutive generations.
“As a seasoned attorney, I guess he thought he could outsmart the jury,” said attorney and legal affairs commentator Areva Martin.
On Friday, a week after 54-year-old Murdaugh spent hours on the witness stand trying to convince a jury of his innocence, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of his wife and son.
“He had to testify. There were too many lies,” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said Saturday. “Obviously the jury felt he was cheating on them.”
Perhaps Murdaugh’s biggest lie was to deny for a year and a half that he was anywhere near his wife Maggie and 22-year-old son Paul when they were fatally shot at the family’s Islandton property on June 7, 2021.
On the witness stand, Murdaugh claimed he did not kill them but found their bodies after returning from a brief visit to his ailing mother that night.
Important evidence came from Paul Murdaugh capturing video just before he was gunned down and killed. It showed a family dog near the kennels on the property. It also captured his father’s voice in the background, placing Alex Murdaugh at the crime scene.
The video, which Murdaugh was unaware of before the trial, eliminated his alibi. The longtime attorney took the stand at a courthouse where a portrait of Murdaugh’s grandfather had adorned a wall before the trial. He tried to explain why he lied about his whereabouts.
“He had never been held accountable in his life and he could always evade it – and that was more important to him than anything,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters told CNN.
“That’s why I was always convinced that he would testify in this case. That he was assured that he could talk his way out again. Not out of all the trouble, but make sure you talk your way out of it. The jury obviously saw it differently.”
Within moments of taking the position, Murdaugh admitted that his voice could be heard in the video, which appeared to have been taken in the kennels where the bodies were found, and said he lied to investigators about him was there earlier that evening because of “paranoid thoughts” arising from his drug addiction.
During the course of the trial, numerous witnesses identified Murdaugh’s voice in the background of the footage. But Murdaugh made it clear that he “did not shoot my wife or my son. At any time. Always.”
Craig Moyer, a juror who assisted in sentencing Murdaugh on Thursday, told ABC News it took the panel less than an hour to reach a unanimous decision.
The video was crucial.
“I could hear his voice clearly,” Moyer told ABC. “And everyone else could too.”
Murdaugh is “a good liar,” Moyer said, “but not good enough.”
Moyer told ABC he saw “no real remorse or compassion” from Murdaugh. In the stands, “Murdaugh wasn’t crying,” Moyer said. “He just blew snot.”
Waters said he just wanted to get Murdaugh to talk during cross-examination. And he did.
“We have to remember that this guy was a seasoned attorney,” Waters said. “He’s a part-time assistant attorney and his family has a 100-year legacy of prosecution … I felt like he thought he could look at this jury and really convince them. But I felt like if I got him to talk, eventually he would lie and they would see that in real time.
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian defended the decision to have Murdaugh testify, saying his credibility was in question because of financial misconduct. He said the defense team plans to appeal the verdict within 10 days.
In a separate case that has yet to go to trial, Murdaugh faces 99 charges arising from a range of alleged financial crimes, including defrauding his clients, his former law firm and the multi-million dollar government.
“Once they got that character info — ‘he’s a thief, he’s a liar’ — this jury had to think he’s a despicable person who’s unbelievable,” Harpootlian told reporters after the sentencing, referencing Evidence of the financial crimes introduced in the murder trial. Murdaugh, he added, always wanted to take a stand.
Harpootlian told CNN it was “inexplicable to me that he would execute his son and his wife in this way.”
Another defense attorney, Jim Griffin, said putting Murdaugh on the stand showed the jury his client’s “emotions about Maggie and Paul, which are very raw and real.”
Still, according to legal experts, putting Murdaugh on the witness stand was a risky move.
“His testimony was very bad. In fact, I think it was borderline cruel,” jury advisor Alan Tuerkheimer told CNN. “Juries don’t like it when witnesses are questioned and they don’t answer, and what he kept doing was beyond the scope of the questions.”
Türkheimer added that Murdaugh “kept trying to throw in his own narrative. He was evasive, I thought he freaked out a lot and his testimony was selfish and juries don’t like that. He should have stuck to quick yes or no replies when annoyed.”
Türkheimer also questioned the effectiveness of Murdaugh, frequently referring to his dead wife and son as “Mags” and “Paul Paul”.
“It’s effective when it’s real and just doesn’t seem so real. You see, lawyers love to testify. You use words to persuade people. And once he was in the stands, he just couldn’t stop himself,” Tuerkheimer said of Murdaugh.
“And when he used those terms to endear himself to the jury, they just didn’t find it authentic. They refused and it was an Ave Maria that he had to witness. And like most Ave Marys, it didn’t work.”
On Thursday, after more than a month and dozens of witnesses, the jury convicted Murdaugh of two counts of murder in the June 2021 murders, as well as two counts of possession of a weapon while committing a violent crime.
The next day after his sentencing, Murdaugh – dressed in brown coveralls and handcuffs – was escorted out of a courthouse that once symbolized his family’s history of power and privilege in the region.
“For him, the chance to convince a juror or two that he’s a liar, maybe a thief, but not a murderer was worth the risk,” defense attorney Misty Marris told CNN on Saturday. “But in my opinion, it was the testimony that really sunk him.”