By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -A South Carolina jury on Thursday found Richard “Alex” Murdaugh guilty of killing his wife and son, convicting the once-influential attorney of murder in a case that has gripped the nation’s attention for nearly two years.
The 12-person jury declared Murdaugh, 54, guilty on two counts of murdering his wife Maggie, 52, and youngest son, Paul, 22, who were executed at close range near the dog kennels on their family estate on the evening of June 7, 2021. He was also convicted of two related firearms charges.
Murdaugh betrayed no emotion as the jury foreperson read the verdict, which the panel reached after three hours of deliberations. He was then led out of the courtroom with his hands cuffed.
His lawyer immediately motioned for a mistrial, which the judge swiftly denied.
“The evidence of guilt is overwhelming,” South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman said.
Murdaugh, the scion of an influential legal family in an area west of Charleston, had pleaded not guilty, though he admitted to lying about his alibi and to committing to an array of financial crimes in confessions that dented his credibility with the jury.
With the guilty verdict, Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison for each of the two counts of murder when he is sentenced on Friday.
The case has drawn intense media coverage given the family’s immense political power in and around Colleton County, where the trial took place. For decades until 2006, family members served as the leading prosecutor in the area, and Murdaugh was a prominent personal injury attorney in the Deep South state.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors portrayed Murdaugh as a serial liar and argued that only he had the means and the opportunity to commit the murders. Prosecutors said he gunned down his wife and son to distract from his financial crimes, including the theft of millions of dollars from his law partners and clients – money used to feed a years-long addiction to opioids and support an expensive lifestyle.
Among the state’s strongest evidence was Murdaugh’s admission from the stand last week that he lied about his whereabouts on the night of the killings, telling investigators he wasn’t at the dog kennels before the murders. Murdaugh changed his account after the jury listened to audio evidence placing him at the crime scene minutes before the killings occurred.
“It doesn’t matter who your family is, it doesn’t matter how much money you have,” Creighton Waters, the lead prosecutor, said after the verdict. “If you do wrong, if you break the law, if you murder, then justice will be done in South Carolina.”
‘ONLY ONE CONCLUSION’
For their part, Murdaugh’s lawyers tried to paint their client as a loving family man who, while facing financial difficulties and suffering from an opioid addiction that led him to lie and steal, would never harm his wife and child.
They floated alternative theories, with Murdaugh testifying that he believed someone angry over a deadly 2019 boating accident involving Paul likely sought revenge on his son.
Jim Griffin, one of the defense lawyers, described the state’s alleged motive as preposterous during his closing argument on Thursday, arguing the murders would have only drawn more scrutiny to Murdaugh’s financial misdeeds.
Griffin also accused investigators of fabricating evidence and repeatedly stressed the high legal bar in criminal cases of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, underscoring the challenge facing prosecutors who built their case largely on circumstantial rather than direct evidence.
But in the end jurors did not believe Murdaugh’s account. Prosecutors focused on Murdaugh’s credibility, coming back time and again to his admission that he lied about something as critical as where he was when his wife and child were killed.
Judge Newman told jurors they made the right call.
“Circumstantial evidence, direct evidence — all of the evidence pointed to only one conclusion, and that’s the conclusion that you all reached,” he said.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Josie Kao, Jonathan Oatis, Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman)