Convicted ex-lawyer Alex Murdaugh’s decision to take the stand at his double-murder trial wasn’t entirely surprising given his family’s legal heritage stretching back to the early 1900s in coastal South Carolina.
But legal experts say it ended up being a costly maneuver for the scion of the well-connected Murdaugh clan, which has prosecuted crime for three successive generations across the state’s rural low country.
“Being a capable lawyer, I think he thought he could outwit the jury,” said lawyer and legal commentator Areva Martin.
On Friday, a week after Murdaugh, 54, spent hours on the witness stand trying to convince jurors of his innocence, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murders of his wife and son.
“He had to testify. There were too many lies,” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said Saturday. “Obviously the jury felt he was cheating them.”
Murdaugh’s biggest lie may have been that he denied for a year and a half that he was near his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, when they were fatally shot on the family’s property in Islandton on June 7, 2021.
On the stand, Murdaugh maintained that he did not kill them, but found their bodies after returning from a brief visit to his sick mother that night.
A key element came from Paul Murdaugh, who recorded a video moments before he was shot and killed. It showed a family dog near the property’s kennels. He also captured his father’s voice in the background, placing Alex Murdaugh at the scene of the crime.
The video, which Murdaugh didn’t know existed before the trial, obliterated his alibi. The longtime attorney took the stand in a courtroom where a portrait of Murdaugh’s grandfather had graced a wall before the trial. He tried to explain why he lied about his whereabouts.
“He’s never faced accountability in his life, and he’s always been able to get away with it — and that was more important to him than anything else,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters told CNN.
“That’s why I was always convinced that he would testify in this case. That he had been assured that he could escape once more. Not out of all the trouble, but he’ll definitely talk his way out of it. Obviously the jury saw it differently.”
Moments after taking the stand, Murdaugh acknowledged that his voice can be heard on video that appears to have been taken at the dog kennels where the bodies were found, saying he lied to investigators about being there earlier that night because of “paranoid thinking” coming from his drug addiction.
During the trial, multiple witnesses recognized Murdaugh’s voice in the background of the video. But Murdaugh was adamant that he “didn’t shoot my wife or my son. Whenever. Always.”
Craig Moyer, a juror who helped convict Murdaugh on Thursday, told ABC News it took the panel less than an hour to reach a unanimous decision.
The video was decisive.
“I could hear his voice clearly,” Moyer told ABC. “And everyone else could too.”
Murdaugh was “a good liar,” Moyer said, “but not good enough.”
Moyer told ABC he “saw no real remorse or compassion” from Murdoch. On the stand, Murdaugh “didn’t cry,” Moyer said. “All he did was blow snot.”
Waters said he just wanted to get Murdoch to talk on cross-examination. And he did.
“We have to remember that this guy was an experienced lawyer,” Waters said. “He’s a part-time paralegal and there’s a 100-year legacy of prosecution in his family … I felt like he thought he could look at this jury and really convince them. But I felt that if I got him to talk, eventually he would lie and they would see it in real time.”
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian defended the decision to let Murdaugh testify, saying his credibility was called into question because of financial misconduct. He said the defense team plans to appeal the sentence within 10 days.
In a separate case that has yet to go to trial, Murdaugh faces 99 charges stemming from a series of alleged financial crimes, including defrauding his clients, his former law firm and the government out of millions.
“Once they got that character information — ‘he’s a thief, he’s a liar’ — then this jury had to think he’s a despicable human creature and not believe him,” Harpootlian told reporters after the sentencing, referring to evidence that with the financial crimes introduced in the murder trial. Murdaugh, he added, had always wanted to take the position.
Harpootlian told CNN it was “inexplicable that he would execute his son and his wife in this way, in my mind.”
Another defense attorney, Jim Griffin, said Murdaugh’s position on the stand showed the jury his client’s “feelings for Maggie and Paul, which are very raw and real.”
However, according to legal experts, putting Murdaugh on the stand was a risky move.
“His testimony was very poor. In fact, I think it was borderline horrible,” jury consultant Alan Workheimer told CNN. “Juries don’t like it when witnesses are questioned and they don’t answer, and what he kept doing was going way beyond the scope of the questions.”
Tuerkheimer added that Murdaugh “kept trying to insert his own narrative. He was evasive, I thought he questioned a lot and his testimony was self-serving and juries don’t like that. He should have stuck to quick yes or no answers when he was being crucified.”
Tuerkheimer also questioned Murdaugh’s effectiveness by frequently referring to his dead wife and son as “Mags” and “Paul Paul”.
“It’s effective if it’s genuine and it just didn’t come off as genuine. Look, lawyers love to testify. They use words to persuade people. And once he was on the stand, he just couldn’t contain himself,” Tuerkheimer said of Murdaugh.
“And when he used those terms to endear himself to the jury, they just didn’t think it was authentic. They rejected it and it was a Hail Mary he had to file. And, like most Hail Marys, it didn’t work.”
On Thursday, after more than a month and dozens of witnesses, the jury convicted Murdaugh of two counts of murder in the June 2021 murders, as well as two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
The next day, after his sentencing, Murdaugh – wearing a brown jumpsuit and handcuffs – was led out of a courthouse that once symbolized his family’s history of power and privilege in the area.
“For him the chance to convince a jury or two that he might be a liar, he might be a thief, but he’s not a murderer, was worth taking that risk,” defense attorney Misty Marris told CNN on Saturday. “But in my opinion, it was the testimony that sunk him.”