Alex Murdaugh, a former South Carolina lawyer, was found guilty of the murders of his wife and son on March 2, 2023. Specifically, Murdaugh was found guilty of two counts of murder and two counts of using a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. After the 28-day trial, the jury only took a few hours to agree that Mr. Murdaugh satisfied each element of murder unanimously. At indictment, Mr. Murdaugh faced 30 years to life for each murder conviction. While every person in the United States is guaranteed their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, even in trial, Mr. Murdaugh’s admissions against the advice of his attorneys led to his conviction and two life sentences.
What if the Murdaugh Murder Trial was held in Texas?
In Texas, murder is defined differently than in SC where the Murdaugh trial occurred. In Texas, criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide. A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.
In short, a person may be convicted of murder if they intentionally or knowingly cause the death of an individual or intend to cause serious bodily injury and commit an act dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual. A charge will specify which elements the state will assert in a trial. A lawyer will take two traditional routes to defend a murder charge.
Defense to Murder
First, a lawyer will attempt to negate the elements of the charge asserted by the state. For example, suppose a client is charged with intentionally causing the death of another, similar to Mr. Murdaugh’s charges. In that case, a lawyer will attempt to show the client did not act with intent.
Second, a lawyer may attempt to assert an affirmative defense. Texas recognizes many affirmative defenses, such as excuse, heat-of-passion, mistake, self-defense, or insanity. These defenses have elements the defendant needs to show to convince the jury of their innocence.
The Case Against Alex Murdaugh
Prosecutor John Meadows led the State’s case against Mr. Murdaugh. He produced a dramatic closing argument and urged the jury to focus on the facts of the case alone.
The prosecution relied on a minimal amount of substantial evidence from the scene. The state argued that Murdaugh had previously shot the rifle used to kill his wife a month before the acts occurred. They went on to allege that Murdaugh was the only person who could have committed the murders, and there was no evidence of an unknown attack that Murdaugh alleged existed.
But the state’s attack on Murdaugh’s integrity and character won the jury over. The prosecutors alleged Murdaugh stole millions of dollars from his former colleagues and clients to fuel his opiate addiction. The financial pressure weighed heavily on the former civil trial attorney. In addition, the state argued Murdaugh killed his wife when she found out about the crimes and later his son, who witnessed everything.
The prosecution did not prove their case alone, but it was Murdaugh’s testimony that was the cause of his demise. While he did not give a full admission, Murdaugh admitted to lying to authorities. After video evidence confirmed Murdaugh’s voice in the background at the dog kennels, where his wife and son were found, he again admitted to lying to authorities. He painted himself as a caring father who demonstrated a history of opiate addiction, which caused him to steal money from his former law firm, rack up personal debt, and even drain his family’s bank accounts.
But for Murdaugh’s testimony, the state could not have confirmed many details he admitted to in trial.
The Defense of Alex Murdaugh
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution reads in part: “no personal shall…be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…without due process of law”. In other words, every defendant in a criminal trial is entitled to the right to remain silent. This right extends to the privilege that no defendant must take a stand in their defense. Unfortunately, Alex Murdaugh chose to depart from this right and speak on his behalf, despite the advice of his prestigious defense team.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin presented strong evidence against law enforcement. He asserted there was an indication that evidence had been fabricated because the officers were already biased against Murdaugh. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, took DNA evidence of Murdaugh’s clothes but none from either victim. There was an indication of high-velocity blood splatter on Murdaugh’s tee shirt, but SLED refused to investigate. In the trial, the state embraced the theory that Murdaugh had quickly washed himself off with a hose. In addition, no tests were performed on the hair found under his wife’s fingernails. Above all, the video confirming Murdaugh’s location would lead the jury to believe the murders were committed within four minutes.
Murdaugh also had no history of violence against his wife or son, and there was no testimony that their relationships had been stressed.