WALTERBORO, SC — Hotel rooms have been booked for weeks in this small South Carolina town about 50 miles west of Charleston, where some residents have listed their homes on Airbnb for hundreds of dollars a night.
In a parking lot across from the Colleton County Courthouse, food trucks will cater to an expected crowd of legal teams, law enforcement, news outlets and members of the public, from true crime buffs to curious onlookers, all gathering for a local newspaper dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”
That 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 jury selection on Monday. The frenzy of the process could potentially go on for a few weeks, and Court TV is touting “hammer-to-hammer coverage.”
Since the evening of June 7, 2021, when Murdaugh frantically called 911 to say he found his wife and son fatally shot near the kennels on their Colleton County estate, the saga has garnered attention as an unsolved double homicide, however, broader allegations of financial fraud, a hitman conspiracy and drug addiction soon unraveled, as well as a re-investigation into other strange deaths linked to the prominent family.
Few lawsuits in recent times have riveted this region of South Carolina known as the Lowcountry, where the fathers of three generations of Murdaughs held power as chief prosecutors for a cluster of counties for nearly a century. But the perceived spectacle means that not only is Murdaugh on display, but also the county seat of Walterboro, which has a population of 5,460.
“We didn’t mean to do that, but it’s happening, and it’s here,” Scott Grooms, Walterboro’s director of tourism and downtown development, said last week. “We have to show our best face and take care of our guests.”
Grooms, a former TV journalist who covered the 1995 trial of Susan Smith, the white South Carolina mother who falsely told police a black man kidnapped her two young sons in a car theft, the logistics are a big one Carry out trial, not lost confessed that she had drowned her in a lake.
Steeped in racist undertones, the Smith trial took place in the tiny town of Union and drew a surge of international interest and outsiders keen to visit the lake. Just finding a place to eat was a chore, Grooms recalled.
But, he said, he didn’t want Walterboro to be caught flat-footed, and after Christmas he posted on Facebook that the city was requesting food trucks to be placed near the courthouse.
Almost immediately, the comments shared:
“Clowns and concessions, now all you need is a trapeze troupe to complete the three-ring circus.”
“That’s so disrespectful.”
“It’s better that our community is perceived as more prepared than not.”
The cost of the process was not immediately available, but in a city where the annual budget is about $7 million, necessary expenses such as police overtime, portable toilets, signage and fencing must be considered.
“We’re ready to roll with it – we have to be,” Grooms said. Later, on his way to a meeting, he glanced wide-eyed at the latest news on a cellphone: Netflix had just released a trailer for a docuseries about the case, called Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.
A curvy case
The Murdaugh name is so ingrained in the Lowcountry that the Colleton County Courthouse had to remove a portrait of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., Alex Murdaugh’s late grandfather and top prosecutor for 46 years, from a back wall of the courtroom during the trial. (Alex’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, was seriously ill and died at the age of 81, three days after Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were killed, adding to the intrigue.)
While Alex Murdaugh, 54, hails from neighboring Hampton County, he’s also been a fixture at the Colleton County courthouse for years, having represented clients as a Lowcountry personal injury attorney before being expelled last summer.
Approximately 900 jury summonses were issued in a county of approximately 38,600 people. With so much at stake, local officials want the process to go smoothly so as not to trigger a mistrial.
Legal experts say jury selection in South Carolina isn’t usually lengthy, but this is no ordinary process, and Murdaugh’s defense team and the prosecution — led by chief prosecutor Creighton Waters of the State Office of the Attorney General — will be particularly strategic about seating jurors. If found guilty, Murdaugh faces life in prison without parole.
It remains unclear if the jury will be seized. Some wondered if the trial could even be delayed after a son of District Judge Clifton Newman, who oversees the trial, died earlier this month. One of only a handful of black district judges in South Carolina, Newman presided over other prominent trials, including that of a white police officer, Michael Slager, who eventually pleaded guilty to the fatal shooting of a black man, Walter Scott. in North Charleston.
During a pretrial hearing in December, prosecutor Waters provided a possible motive for the crime, alleging that Murdaugh had schemed for years and stolen about $8.5 million from more than a dozen victims, including through his family’s company and clients, and he said he was so desperate to “evade accountability” that he killed his wife and son and then covered it up to gain sympathy.
His financial situation took a turn for the worse in 2019 when Paul Murdaugh was involved in a boating accident that resulted in injuries and the life of a 19-year-old passenger, Mallory Beach. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs who owned the boat and the supermarket chain who allegedly sold alcohol to the underage occupants. A settlement agreement is pending.
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh was awaiting trial on three counts of drunk boating and on $50,000 personal acknowledgment bail.
“I think when this case started a lot of people assumed it was a murder case and then with an employee [crime] walk in there,” Waters said at the pretrial hearing. “But the reality is that in this extensive investigation, we found that this was an economic case that culminated in two murders.”
But Murdaugh’s defense team — led by veteran attorneys Jim Griffin and Richard “Dick” Harpootlian — responded at the hearing that the state had not said it had evidence that Murdaugh was reaping financial fortunes from the deaths of his wife and son would, such as paying out life insurance, nor that they would have known of any alleged impropriety, which he sought to conceal by killing her.
While proof of motive is not required for the prosecution’s case, the defense must dissect the vast amount of evidence the state plans to present, including how Murdaugh’s financial spiral led to an unimaginable double homicide, said Dennis Bolt, a retired attorney in Columbia, who has worked on cases involving Harpootlian and Griffin.
Another question remains: will Murdaugh testify in his own defense?
Don’t count him out, said Bolt. “The last murder case I tried and Jim Griffin was my co-counsel, if we hadn’t put the defendant on the stand Jim believes he would have been convicted.”
Along downtown Walterboro, where law firms, quaint antique shops and empty storefronts line the street, the upcoming trial has some residents worried about what the community’s perception will be like.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Patti Lohr, 66, as she stopped by a jewelry store to check on longtime owners Lewis and Arlene Harris. “I don’t want us to look podunk over this man,” Murdaugh said.
“All this attention,” Lohr said, “it’s going to be a zoo.”
“A circus would describe it better than a zoo,” added Arlene Harris. “A circus with three arenas.”
The last time Walterboro saw such a fuss, with its columned antebellum homes and towering oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, was when Hollywood came to town: Scenes from the stirring classic Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump 1994 was filmed here, as was the sports drama “Radio” from 1993.
In recent months, Walterboro residents got a taste of renewed recognition when news trucks came to the Colleton County Courthouse for hearings involving Murdaugh. Murdaugh remains on a $7 million bond for finance-related costs.
Rev. Leon Maxwell, chairman of St. Peter’s AME Church, which was founded in 1867 and is the oldest black church in Colleton County, said he has been following the case closely and will be watching the trial on television. Although he did not know Alex Murdaugh personally, he said that few with longstanding connections in the area had not been touched in one way or another by the Murdaughs’ orbit.
In hushed side chats, some wonder if the justice system will treat Murdaugh differently because of his family’s prestige, Maxwell said.
“I’m thinking about this from a biblical perspective: What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Maxwell said, reciting the Scriptures. “It doesn’t just apply to Mr. Murdaugh. This is for everyone. Are we willing to sell our soul for worldly pleasures? How much will that cost us in the end?”