Lowcountry attorney offers insight into high-profile Alex Murdaugh murder trial

Six months after investigators charged Alex Murdaugh with the murders of his wife and son, he will face a jury in Colleton County.
Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 8:21 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Six months after former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh was charged with killing his wife and son, his trial is set to begin on Monday in Colleton County.

Typically, murder trials in South Carolina last a week or so. But Murdaugh’s double murder trial is expected to run about three weeks. Charleston-area attorney Mark Peper says that’s because all sides want to get it right the first time.

“Nobody wants to have to do it twice. Nobody wants to have to put the family through it twice, the defendant or the court system or another panel of jurors,” Peper said. “So, no matter how long this trial takes, I have no doubt that Judge Newman will make sure that he gets his rulings right. That he allows in the evidence that is allowed to come in and he says no to others because nobody’s gonna want to do this twice,” Attorney Mark Peper said.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

Murdaugh is accused of shooting his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and their youngest son, 22-year-old Paul, on the night of June 7, 2021. The murders made national headlines. Although now disbarred, Murdaugh comes from a long line of prominent attorneys in Colleton County.

So how do you find an impartial jury for this case in the county where most people know of the Murdaugh family? Peper says you do so by questioning the jury pool extensively.

“How do you know the family? What relationships, if any, have you had? How do you feel about it if you read something, does that automatically make them guilty?” Peper said.

Charleston-area attorney Mark Peper weighs in on the challenges of trying a high-profile case...
Charleston-area attorney Mark Peper weighs in on the challenges of trying a high-profile case like the Alex Murdaugh murder trial, which is set to begin on Monday in Colleton County.(Live 5)

Jury selection alone, he says, could take a week. The case centers on what investigators call two cold-blooded murders. But last month, the attorney general’s office announced it would only seek life in prison if Murdaugh is convicted.

So why would the state, take the death penalty off the table in this case? One reason could be the length of time it would add to the trial proceedings.

“We’re talking four weeks to try this case. If you seek the death penalty, you can add two weeks on the front of that, and probably a week or two on the back of that,” Peper says. “A lot of other pretrial motions would need to be filed.”

Murdaugh’s defense team consists of Jim Griffin and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian. Peper says they are two of the best in the business and will captivate the courtroom.

“It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be entertaining. It’s gonna be loud, some may even refer to it as a circus down the road,” he says. “But that’s their job. Their job is to say, ‘what you just heard doesn’t make sense does it.”’

He says they will be fighting every step of the way to show that the state can’t prove that Murdaugh was the one who pulled the trigger.

“‘Y’all can’t put the gun in his hand. Yeah, he had blood on his clothes: he was the first to find his wife and son dead.’ You’re gonna hear a lot of that,” Peper says.

The prosecution’s case relies heavily on the motive for the murders and is expected to argue Murdaugh was in so much financial trouble, that he sacrificed his family as a way to distract attention from accusations that he had stolen millions, Peper says. Motive, he says, is an important matter for juries.

“Jurors are much more receptive to a verdict, that’s gotta be unanimous for guilt, when they can have a conversation within the room about, well remember that guy testified as to why and that makes sense to me,” he says. “They want to have that talk, and you better give them something to talk about.”

The case has already received a lot of attention with an HBO Max documentary, podcasts and national news coverage, but Peper doesn’t think the trial will rise to the publicity level of some other high-profile cases.

“I don’t know that it’ll give OJ Simpson a run for the exposure and attention that he got,” Peper adds. “An ex-NFL player, former Hall Of Fame running back, the salacious allegations, those types of things, but it certainly is a murder mystery for the century.”

The trial will begin with jury selection Monday morning in Colleton County.