After three weeks, 61 witnesses, and hundreds of pieces of evidence, South Carolina prosecutors on Friday rested their case against disgraced former lawyer Alex Murdaugh.
In what local media has dubbed the “trial of the century” in the Palmetto State, prosecutors have argued that Murdaugh fatally shot his wife, Maggie, and his son, Paul, near the dog kennels of the family’s hunting estate in a desperate attempt to hide that he had been stealing millions from his former law firm and clients for years.
Dozens of witnesses have testified that after the pair were shot, the close-knit Hampton community rushed to Murdaugh’s side and halted all the questions they had been asking him about missing money. Law enforcement experts also walked jurors through cell phone data, autopsy reports, and other evidence that prosecutors say proves Murdaugh was the only person who could have killed his wife and son in June 2021—including one video Paul took minutes before his murder that debunked Murdaugh’s alibi.
But several legal experts told The Daily Beast that despite the mountain of evidence, the pathway toward a conviction still may not be so easy. The main reason, experts say, is the prosecution’s lack of hard evidence that directly ties Murdaugh to the crime scene and the lack of explanation about why the 54-year-old would want to murder his family when several witnesses have said they were his number one priority. Not to mention, the rifle and semi-automatic used to kill Murdaugh’s 52-year-old wife and 22-year-old son respectively have never been recovered.
“The state has a very tough circumstantial case with no clear motive and little direct evidence,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who is not connected to the case, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I still think the defense has the advantage, but the prosecution has gained a lot of ground.”
Murdaugh’s attorneys have maintained that there is no clear evidence to prove the prosecution’s case without reasonable doubt. So far, they have successfully poked holes in some of the witness testimony—especially the forensic experts who admitted there is no ballistic or DNA evidence to definitively say Murdaugh murdered his wife and son. Along the way, however, the defense also has been forced to admit that their client was secretly a long-time drug addict who stole from those closest to him.
Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to four charges against him and faces upwards of 30 years in prison if convicted.
“The trial has been meandering along at a very slow pace,” Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “The prosecution has focused so much on ancillary financial crimes that it’s hard at times to follow between that and the evidence of the murders.”
“This is likely because the prosecution’s theory of motive, that Murdaugh committed these murders to distract from his financial crimes, is so thin,” he added.
But Janet Johnson, a criminal defense attorney who has been watching the trial, believes that “prosecutors may have done enough to get a conviction despite themselves.” She noted that while there was no “aha” moment in their case, prosecutors did successfully make Murdaugh look guilty by “death by 1000 cuts and lots of evidence,” including evidence that Murdaugh deleted his cell phone log and his calls from his son’s phone.
That said, Johnson admitted that prosecutors “risked getting lost in the weeds with cell phone logs, GPS data, financial spreadsheets, and other technical evidence of gunshot residue and DNA analysis.”
“This testimony, which prosecutors usually bury in the middle of the trial, is often necessary to lay a predicate to admit evidence, but it can really put jurors to sleep,” Johnson said.
Rahmani said that the prosecution’s often convoluted case be distilled into “three general categories of helpful evidence” for jurors: Murdaugh’s lies about his alibi; the ballistics evidence at the crime scene that indicates Maggie and Paul were murdered with the family’s own rifle and semi-automatic rifle; and the testimony from several witnesses portraying Murdaugh as a “bad person” who stole from his best friend and his own family’s law firm.
“We’ve heard about his many financial crimes, [about] him being fired from his law firm, and his opioid addiction,” Rahmani said. “It’s very questionable if these bad acts have any relevance to the murders, but the prosecution has beat up Murdaugh pretty badly, and the jurors aren’t going to like him.”
In several police interviews shown to the jury, Murdaugh insisted that he was asleep in the estate’s main house when Maggie and Paul were fatally shot at around 8:50 p.m. down near the dog kennels. Murdaugh then claimed that when he awoke, he left to go visit his ailing mother before returning home just before 10 p.m. When he didn’t see his wife or son in the main house, he said he went down to the kennels—and found the pair laying in pools of blood.
But prosecutors showed jurors a video Paul filmed at the dog kennels for a friend five minutes before he was murdered that seemed to discredit Murdaugh’s alibi. In the video, while Paul is trying to take his friend’s dog, several witnesses testified they could hear Murdaugh and Maggie speaking in the background.
“If the jurors believe that he was at the kennels and not napping like he said, that is consistent with guilt,” Rahmani noted.
Among the notable witnesses the prosecution called to show Murdaugh’s personality and state of mind around the time of the murders, Rahmani said Maggie’s sister, Marian Proctor, may have been the most powerful for the jury. As the only family member to testify, Proctor emotionally recounted her close relationship with Maggie and how she encouraged her sister to be with Murdaugh on the day of the murders.
Proctor also stunned the courtroom when she revealed that Murdaugh assured her that Maggie and Paul “did not suffer” during the murder—and that he believed whoever killed them “had thought about it for a really long time.”
“[Marian] was the best prosecution witness so far because she was believable, likable, and testified that Murdaugh’s behavior wasn’t consistent with a grieving husband and father,” Rahmani said.
But experts admit that the prosecution did not focus enough on the emotional testimony, instead concentrating a majority of their witnesses on cellphone and forensic evidence to retrace Murdaugh, Maggie, and Paul’s movements on the day of the murder.
One reason for this focus, Levin noted, is because “the state’s theory of motive is purely speculative, at best.” “While the motive is not something the prosecution has to show, it is basic human nature to want to understand why it is that he would have done such a horrendous thing,” Levin added.
Michel Huff, a California criminal defense attorney and former police officer, noted that the decision to deluge the jury with technical jargon may backfire.
“While the prosecutors have presented strong evidence against Murdaugh, they rely heavily on cell phone evidence which may be more difficult for the jury to understand,” Huff, who is not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast. “The main challenge for the prosecutor will be using their closing arguments to piece the cell phone evidence together to tell a story that is compelling for the jury.”
“If they can do that effectively, then the defense will have an uphill battle to overcome the evidence that we have seen,” he added.
Rahmani, however, is not that convinced that the prosecution has clinched a guilty verdict in this highly publicized case.
“I think there is reasonable doubt and if you stuck a gun to my head, I would say the case ends in an acquittal or hung jury,” Rahmani said. “ But you never know what 12 strangers who can’t get out of jury duty will do.”