(CNN) — [Breaking news update, published at 7:00 p.m. ET]
The jury has reached a verdict in the double murder trial of former attorney Alex Murdaugh after less than three hours of deliberations.
Murdaugh pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two weapons charges in the fatal shootings of his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, and son Paul at their family estate in Islandton, South Carolina, in June 2021.
The jury must be unanimous in its decision to either acquit Murdaugh or convict him.
[Original story, published at 12:01 p.m. ET]
The jury began to deliberate Thursday in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, the disgraced attorney accused of fatally shooting his wife and son at their South Carolina hunting property in 2021.
The 12 jurors will deliberate until they come to a unanimous verdict on two counts of murder and two weapons charges. Murdaugh, 54, has pleaded not guilty in the deaths of his wife Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and son Paul Murdaugh.
Earlier Thursday, Murdaugh’s defense team delivered closing arguments and said law enforcement was too quick to pinpoint him as the main suspect in the killings by the dog kennels on the sprawling estate.
“We believe that we’ve shown conclusively that (the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) failed miserably in investigating this case,” attorney Jim Griffin said. “And had they done a competent job, Alex would have been excluded from that circle (of suspects) a year ago or two years ago.”
Over about two hours, Griffin also mocked the prosecution’s theory of motive, explained away Murdaugh’s lies, accused investigators of fabricating evidence and criticized the supposed timeline as unconvincing.
In a rebuttal, prosecutor John Meadors took offense at the defense’s accusations of wrongdoing.
“I find it offensive that the defense … is claiming law enforcement didn’t do their job, while he is withholding and obstructing justice by not saying ‘I was down at the kennels.’ ”
The deliberations come after a six-week trial heavy on brutal gore, phone forensics, a mysterious blue tarp, extensive financial wrongdoing and the defendant’s own lies.
Prosecutors called 61 witnesses over three weeks of testimony to show Murdaugh was the only person who had the motive, means and opportunity to kill his wife and son on their property known as Moselle in Islandton, South Carolina, on the night of June 7, 2021.
With little to no direct evidence, such as bloody clothing or eyewitnesses, prosecutors have hinged their case on consequential video placing Murdaugh at the crime scene that night despite his repeated assertions otherwise.
The defense case was highlighted by Murdaugh himself, who offered dramatic testimony over two days last week in which he flatly denied killing his wife and son. At the same time, he admitted he had lied to investigators about his whereabouts just prior to the killings due to paranoia from his drug addiction. He further admitted to stealing millions of dollars from his former clients and law firm and lying to cover his tracks.
The stranger-than-fiction case has brought national attention — including Netflix and HBO Max documentaries — on Alex Murdaugh, the former personal injury attorney and member of a dynastic family in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather served as the local prosecutor consecutively from 1920 to 2006.
Murdaugh was a partner at a powerful law firm with his name on it. But that prominence belied underlying issues, and the killings of his wife and son were followed by accusations of misappropriated funds, his resignation, a bizarre alleged suicide-for-hire and insurance scam plot, a stint in rehab for drug addiction, dozens of financial crimes, his disbarment and, ultimately, the murder charges.
He separately faces 99 charges related to alleged financial crimes that will be adjudicated at a later trial.
Defense mocks theory of financial motive
Griffin’s closing arguments, taken together, sought to undercut the prosecution and raise reasonable doubt about the case.
He said the agency failed to investigate hair found in Murdaugh’s wife’s hand, take fingerprint evidence, examine footwear and tire impressions, or test DNA on the victims’ clothes.
“They had decided, ‘Unless we find somebody else, it’s going to be Alex,'” he said.
The prosecution has argued Murdaugh’s motive in the killings was to distract and delay investigations into his financial wrongdoing. Griffin mocked that theory as nonsensical and noted that Murdaugh tried to kill himself in September 2021, calling that a “natural” response to being exposed.
“It’s totally illogical, irrational and insane … for someone to kill their loved ones when their criminal conduct is exposed,” he argued.
Griffin acknowledged Murdaugh had lied about being at the dog kennels where his wife and son were killed on the night of the murders. He said the lies were to hide his drug addiction and financial problems — not because he killed his family.
“Because that’s what addicts do. Addicts lie,” Griffin said. “He lied because he had a closet full of skeletons, and he didn’t want any more scrutiny on him.”
Griffin said that once Murdaugh’s years of financial fraud were exposed in September 2021, investigators began fabricating evidence about blood spatter on Murdaugh’s clothes and a blue jacket with gunshot residue.
“I hate to say this, but the evidence is crystal clear, from that moment they started fabricating evidence against Alex. That’s an awful charge,” he said. “I don’t make that claim lightly.”
Griffin attacked the prosecution’s assertion that the guns used in the killings were “family weapons,” saying there was no firm evidence to support that. He also criticized the prosecution’s proposed timeline of the killings, noting that it was mainly made up of information about whether Paul’s and Maggie’s phones were being used.
“There’s no direct evidence of him doing anything,” he said.
He further noted that the prosecution’s timeline indicated Paul and Maggie were killed at about 8:49 or 8:50 p.m. and that Murdaugh left the property for his mother’s house at 9:07 p.m., leaving only about 17 minutes to clean up the bloody scene.
“He would have to be a magician to make all that evidence disappear,” Griffin said.
What the prosecution said in closing arguments
In the prosecution’s telling, the motive was Murdaugh’s attempt to distract and delay investigations into his growing financial problems. The means were two family-owned weapons, prosecutors argued. And the opportunity was Murdaugh’s presence at the crime scene, as revealed in a pivotal video and confirmed by his own testimony, minutes before the murders.
“This defendant … has fooled everyone, everyone, everyone who thought they were close to him,” prosecutor Creighton Waters told the jury. “Everyone who thought they knew who he was, he’s fooled them all. He fooled Maggie and Paul, too, and they paid for it with their lives. Don’t let him fool you, too.”
Waters first laid out a decade-long timeline of Murdaugh’s financial wrongdoing to show his motive in the killings.
For one, the chief financial officer of his law firm testified she had confronted Murdaugh about missing funds on the morning of June 7, 2021.
Second, Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit from the family of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old woman who was killed in February 2019 when a boat allegedly driven by Paul, and owned by Murdaugh, crashed. A hearing in that civil case was scheduled for June 10, 2021, and had the potential to reveal his financial problems, prosecutors argued.
Next, Waters worked to show that Murdaugh had been at the kennels that night and had lied about it.
Murdaugh had long denied that he went to the kennels that night, but a video taken on Paul’s phone at 8:44 p.m. includes audio of Murdaugh’s voice in the background. After about a dozen friends and family members identified his voice on the video, Murdaugh took the stand and admitted he was there and that he he’d lied to police.
“Why in the world would an innocent, reasonable father and husband lie about that, and lie about it so early? He didn’t know that (video) was there.”
Further, Waters said Murdaugh had the “means” to commit the murders, in particular the weapons in the crime. Maggie was killed by a Blackout rifle and Paul was killed by a shotgun, and Waters said both were family weapons.
Finally, the prosecution walked through Murdaugh’s series of lies about the case, particularly about his presence at the kennels. Murdaugh, he said, “lies convincingly and easily and he can do it at a drop of a hat.”
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