WALTERBORO, S.C. (AP) — Hotel rooms in this small South Carolina city, about 50 miles west of Charleston, have been booked for weeks, and some residents have advertised their homes on Airbnb for hundreds of dollars per night.
Food trucks will serve an expected throng of legal teams, law enforcement, news outlets, and members of the public, from true crime enthusiasts to curious gawkers, in a parking lot across from the Colleton County Courthouse, all converging for what one local newspaper has dubbed “the trial of the century.”
The trial of Alex Murdaugh, the scion of a well-connected legal family accused of murdering his wife, Margaret, and their son, Paul, with a shotgun and rifle, is set to begin with jury selection on Monday. The trial’s frenzy could last several weeks, and Court TV is promoting “gavel-to-gavel coverage.”
Since the evening of June 7, 2021, when Murdaugh frantically called 911 to report finding his wife and son fatally shot near the dog kennels at their Colleton County estate, the saga has spawned attention as an unsolved double homicide, but it quickly unravelled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hit man plot, and drug addiction, and revived scrutiny into other strange deaths linked to the prominent family.
Few trials in recent memory have captivated this region of South Carolina known as the Lowcountry, where fathers of three generations of Murdaughs wielded power as top prosecutors for a cluster of counties for nearly a century. However, because of the perceived spectacle, not only will Murdaugh be on display, but so will the county seat of Walterboro, population 5,460.
“We didn’t want it, but it’s here,” Scott Grooms, Walterboro’s director of tourism and downtown development, said last week. “We have to put on our best face and look after our visitors.”
Grooms, a former television journalist who covered the 1995 trial of Susan Smith, the white South Carolina mother who falsely told police a Black man kidnapped her two infant sons in a carjacking before confessing she drowned them in a lake, understands the logistics of pulling off a major trial.
The Smith trial, which had racial overtones, was held in the tiny city of Union, and it sparked international interest and a rush of tourists to the lake. Grooms recalled how difficult it was to find a place to eat.
But, because he didn’t want Walterboro to be caught off guard, he announced on Facebook shortly after Christmas that the town was looking for food trucks to set up near the courthouse.
Almost immediately, opinions diverged:
“Clowns and concessions are now all you need to complete the three-ring circus.”
“This is extremely disrespectful.”
“It is preferable that our community be perceived as prepared than not.”
The trial’s cost was not immediately available, but in a city with an annual budget of around $7 million, there are necessary expenses such as police overtime, portable restrooms, signage, and fencing that must be considered.
“We have to be ready to roll with it,” Grooms said. Later, on his way to a meeting, he checked his cellphone for the latest news, his eyes widening: Netflix had just released a trailer for “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” a docuseries about the case.
A complicated situation
The Murdaugh name is so well-known in the Lowcountry that the Colleton County Courthouse had to remove a portrait of Alex Murdaugh’s late grandfather, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., a top prosecutor for 46 years, from a back wall of the courtroom during the trial. (To add to the mystery, Alex’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, had been seriously ill and died at the age of 81, three days after Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22 were killed.)
Alex Murdaugh, 54, was a fixture at the Colleton County Courthouse for years, having represented clients as a personal injury attorney in the Lowcountry before being disbarred last summer.
In a county of about 38,600 people, about 900 jury summons notices were distributed. With so much at stake, local officials want the process to go as smoothly as possible in order to avoid a mistrial.
Jury selection in South Carolina is typically quick, according to legal experts, but this is no ordinary trial, and Murdaugh’s defence team and the prosecution — led by state Attorney General Creighton Waters — will be especially deliberate in selecting jurors. If convicted, Murdaugh could face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It is unclear whether the jury will be sequestered. After the death of Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman’s son earlier this month, some speculated that the trial might be postponed. Newman, one of only a few Black circuit court judges in South Carolina, has presided over other notable trials, including that of Michael Slager, a white police officer who eventually pleaded guilty in the fatal shooting of a Black man, Walter Scott, in North Charleston.
During a pretrial hearing in December, prosecutor Waters suggested a possible motive for the crime, claiming that Murdaugh had for years schemed and stolen about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims, including through his family’s firm and from clients, and that he was so desperate to “escape the accountability” that he murdered his wife and son, then covered it up to gain sympathy.
Paul Murdaugh’s financial situation worsened in 2019 when he was involved in a boat crash that resulted in injuries and the death of a 19-year-old passenger, Mallory Beach. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs, the boat’s owners, and the convenience store chain that was accused of selling alcohol to the underage passengers. A settlement agreement is in the works.
Paul Murdaugh was on a $50,000 personal recognisance bond when he died, awaiting trial on three felony counts of boating under the influence.
“I think when this case started, a lot of people assumed it was a murder case with some white-collar [crime] running through it,” Waters said during the pretrial hearing. “However, as we conducted this extensive investigation, we realised that this was a white-collar case that culminated in two murders.”
However, Murdaugh’s defence team, led by veteran lawyers Jim Griffin and Richard “Dick” Harpootlian, argued during the hearing that the state had not indicated that it had evidence showing Murdaugh would benefit financially from the deaths of his wife and son, such as a life insurance payout, nor that they were aware of any alleged impropriety, which he sought to conceal by killing them.
While proving motive is not required for the prosecution’s case, the defence will have to pick through the reams of evidence that the state intends to present, including laying out how Murdaugh’s spiralling finances led to an unimaginable double murder, according to Dennis Bolt, a retired Columbia attorney who has worked on cases with Harpootlian and Griffin.
Another question is whether Murdaugh will testify in his own defence.
Don’t write him off, Bolt said. “In the last murder case I tried, and Jim Griffin was my co-counsel, Jim believes the defendant would have been convicted if we hadn’t put him on the stand.”
There is a sense of impending doom.
The upcoming trial has some residents worried about how the community will be perceived along Walterboro’s downtown, which is lined with law firms, quaint antique shops, and empty storefronts.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Patti Lohr, 66, explained as she dropped by a jewellery store to check on longtime owners Lewis and Arlene Harris. “I don’t want us to look like a slum because of this man,” Murdaugh said.
“With all this attention,” Lohr predicted, “it’ll be a zoo.”
“A circus would be a better description than a zoo,” Arlene Harris added. “It’s like a three-ring circus.”
The last time such a commotion erupted in Walterboro, with its columned antebellum homes and towering live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, was when Hollywood came to town: Scenes from the sweeping 1994 Tom Hanks classic “Forrest Gump,” as well as the 1993 sports drama “Radio,” were shot here.
When news trucks descended on the Colleton County Courthouse for Murdaugh hearings in recent months, Walterboro residents got a taste of the renewed attention. Murdaugh is still being held on a $7 million bond for the financial charges.
The Rev. Leon Maxwell, pastor of St. Peter’s AME Church, the oldest Black church in Colleton County, said he’s been following the case closely and will watch the trial on television. While he didn’t know Alex Murdaugh personally, he said few people with long-standing ties in the area had not been touched in some way by the Murdaughs’ orbit.
Some people wonder if the justice system will treat Murdaugh differently because of his family’s prestige, according to Maxwell.
“From a biblical standpoint, what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Reciting Scripture, Maxwell said. “It isn’t just for Mr. Murdaugh. That applies to everyone. Are we willing to sell our souls for worldly gratification? “How much will it ultimately cost us?”