Three days after his wife and son were brutally murdered outside their South Carolina estate, Alex Murdaugh sat down for his second police interview at his brother’s house.
There, Murdaugh emotionally recalled coming home after a visit with his ailing mother to find his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and his 22-year-old son, Paul, fatally shot multiple times around the dog kennels on the estate. Walking through the details of the crime scene, SLED senior special agent Jeff Croft can be heard in the June 10, 2021 interview—which was played in Colleton County court over the last two days—discussing a “traumatic” photograph of the family’s bodies.
The next five words Murdaugh mutters in the interview have been a critical focus of his murder trial, with prosecutors insisting that he unwittingly confessed to the grisly crime, as defense lawyers maintain the SLED agent simply misunderstood his response.
“It’s just so bad. I did him so bad,” Murdaugh said as they discussed Paul’s gruesome gunshot wounds, according to Croft’s testimony this week.
But Croft first made that claim on Monday, Murdaugh immediately shook his head at the defense table several feet away, before appearing to mouth “that’s not what I said” in court. His defense team claims that in reality, Murdaugh said, “They did him so badly,” referring to whoever murdered his family on June 7, 2021.
While the discrepancy seems to be the latest version of the “blue and gold dress” illusion saga, legal experts tell The Daily Beast the controversy may be the start of the defense poking holes in the prosecution’s case.
“This is a classic example of why the burden of proof is on the prosecution,” Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor who has defended several high-profile clients but is not involved in this case, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “There have been many cases where law enforcement tries to twist the words of a defendant. Here, the jury and public can actually hear how the twist may be happening.”
The “confession,” however, is just one of several key pieces of evidence the prosecution has laid out over the last week in their case to prove that Murdaugh fatally shot his wife and son in a twisted attempt to garner sympathy and shift the attention away from his financial crimes. Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in connection with the double homicide. If convicted, he faces 30 years in prison.
Over the last two days, prosecutors have used Croft’s testimony to highlight several pieces of evidence—including Paul and Maggie’s last text messages, shell casings of the two guns allegedly used in the crime, and a $1,201 Gucci receipt that has yet to be explained. But Croft’s interview with Murdaugh in the days after the murder is the most contentious piece of evidence presented so far.
On Tuesday, defense attorney Jim Griffin grilled Croft about the interview, noting that the SLED agent did not immediately ask Murdaugh to clarify after his alleged confession—or even take the time to write the confession down in his notes. Griffin played the contentious portion of the interview for the jury several times, including once at a third of the speed.
“I am 100 percent confident in what I heard and what I interpreted him to say,” Croft insisted during cross-examination. “I made a mental note of it. We didn’t have information at that point to challenge Mr. Alex on any of his statements.”
Croff later admitted that he didn’t ask Murdaugh about the statement in their next interview on Aug. 11, 2021—noting that “we didn’t make it to that point.” He did note that Murdaugh was in SLED’s “investigative circle” the day after the murders because he was the only living person who was at the crime scene.
Ex-prosecutor Levin thinks the state is “overplaying their hand” by relying so heavily on the alleged confession. Noting that he believes that the prosecution has a strong case, the lawyer speculated that the jury will take notice that Croff—or any other law enforcement officer—did not follow up when Murdaugh allegedly made the comment.
“They let it wash over them. To me, that’s a sign that the prosecution may be overplaying their hand here,” he added. “This is not a smoking gun for the prosecution. This is a barely smoldering paper knife.”
Despite the looming question as to whether Murdaugh actually confessed, legal experts do not believe the controversy has tipped the jury toward the defense.
“While the recording should neutralize the police officer’s testimony regarding his statement, the jury will likely recognize that the statement is not clear, and the police officer could reasonably testify that Murdaugh said ‘I’ on the recording,” Michel Huff, a California criminal defense attorney and former police officer who is not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast.
Huff added that while the recording has created “an interesting public debate, the uncertainty about what was said likely means that this evidence will not have much weight with the jury.”