US lawyer's high-profile murder trial captivates nation
Alex Murdaugh Mugshot

Over the past two weeks, US media have closely followed the trial of Alex Murdaugh, a powerful South Carolina attorney facing charges he killed his wife and son and then attempted to stage his own death.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, the trial has seen a cavalcade of characters take the stand: members of the southern US state's high society, friends claiming they've been cheated, even workers at the Murdaugh family homes.

Each twist and turn has been broadcast live on national television.

On Wednesday, a new mystery emerged after a bomb threat forced the proceedings to be suspended for two hours.

When the trial resumed, focus immediately shifted back to the defendant, a red-haired 54-year-old, who has flatly rejected claims he shot to death his wife Maggie and their youngest child Paul in 2021.

Hailing from a long line of local judges and prosecutors, Murdaugh knows the Walterboro courtroom well. Before his trial even began, a portrait of his grandfather had to be removed from the chambers.

Several podcasts and TV specials have already been produced over the twisting case, with a major documentary set to be released this month on Netflix and a dramatic adaption being prepared by Hulu.

US media have been captivated by the case, frequently showing an old family photo -- Maggie in a fur coat and her husband and two sons in tuxedos -- as well as aerial images of their sprawling hunting estate nicknamed "Moselle."

Critical minutes

It was at that compound in Islandton, South Carolina, that both 52-year-old Maggie and 22-year-old Paul were reported dead on June 7, 2021.

Shortly after 10:00 pm, Murdaugh frantically called the emergency helpline saying he had found his wife and son's lifeless bodies near their dog kennels.

He told investigators he had just returned from visiting his elderly mother, whose fragile mental state has left her unable to corroborate his statements.

At the trial, her caregiver Mushell Smith testified that Murdaugh had spent "20 minutes" with his mother that night.

She then said that Murdaugh met with her a few days later and told her "I was here 30 to 40 minutes," which made her feel uncomfortable.

He then offered to help pay for her wedding -- a proposal seemingly out of the blue, according to Smith.

The timing discrepancy is crucial because, according to prosecutors, the murders took place around 9:45 pm, after which the victims stopped answering their phones.

One minute earlier, Paul had been messaging with a friend about an injured puppy. The 22-year-old recorded a video of the dog, but it was never sent.

Investigators however recovered the video from his phone, and on it three individuals can be heard: Paul, his mother and a male voice.

For prosecutors and several witnesses, there is no doubt the man is his father.

By all accounts, Murdaugh had a "loving relationship" with his wife and children, and could have never committed such a "horrific" crime, his lawyer Richard Harpootlian told the court.

But prosecutors allege that Murdaugh had a darker side, and that to fund his high-flying lifestyle -- as well as his opioid addiction -- he stole exorbitant amounts of money from his law firm, clients and relatives.

Life insurance scam

When the murders were committed, Murdaugh was on the verge of being found out, prosecutors said.

That is in part because Paul was facing legal action over a drunken boating accident in 2019 which resulted in the death of one of his friends.

As the trial approached, lawyers sought to find out more about Murdaugh's finances to know if he could pay possible damages.

In addition, the family law firm's accountant had identified anomalies in the books and on the morning of the two deaths, had asked Murdaugh for explanations.

And finally, Murdaugh had stolen millions of dollars paid by an insurance company to the relatives of his housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who had died after falling down the stairs at "Moselle."

According to prosecutors, the cornered family man devised a desperate plot to divert attention -- which included his own suicide.

Two months after his wife and son's death, Murdaugh was found on a roadside bleeding from the head.

Investigators soon discovered that he had asked a former client to kill him so that his oldest son, Buster, would receive $10 million in life insurance. But the shooter missed.

The attempted insurance scam, along with more than 100 other frauds uncovered during the investigation, will be put to trial at a later date.

In the case at hand, Murdaugh could face the death penalty if convicted.

© Agence France-Presse