WALTERBORO, S.C. — Prosecutors trying to convict Alex Murdaugh of murder in the killing of his wife and son revealed on Friday that the two victims had discovered bags of pills in Mr. Murdaugh’s computer bag a month before the killings, disclosing the surprising new evidence of a possible motive before resting their case against the prominent lawyer.
“When you get here we have to talk,” Mr. Murdaugh’s son, Paul Murdaugh, said in a May 2021 text to his father. “Mom found several bags of pills in your computer bag.”
The message bolsters the prosecution’s argument that at the time of the murders, a “perfect storm” was approaching Mr. Murdaugh, 54, that threatened to expose his embezzlement of millions of dollars from his law firm and clients, as well as his lavish spending on his addiction to painkillers.
Prosecutors rested their case on Friday after questioning more than 60 witnesses in a trial that has charted the yearslong downfall of Mr. Murdaugh, whose family of prosecutors and private practice lawyers held powerful sway in the rural Lowcountry region of South Carolina for more than a century.
Over the past three weeks, prosecutors with the South Carolina attorney general’s office have outlined their theory of the grisly crime, in which Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and their younger son, Paul Murdaugh, 22, were shot to death near the dog kennels on the family’s vast hunting estate.
They have elicited testimony that Mr. Murdaugh’s financial thefts were on the verge of being exposed around the time of the killings in June 2021. On Friday, they also showed a text that Mr. Murdaugh sent to a close friend four days before the murders, in which he said he needed to take out an additional $600,000 line of credit.
Understand the ‘Murdaugh Murders’
A South Carolina mystery. The unraveling of the life of Alex Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, is at the center of a sprawling saga of mysterious deaths — including the killing of his wife and son — and allegations of multimillion-dollar swindles. Here’s what to know about the case:
Two murders and an indictment. The fatal shooting of Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh in 2021 rocked South Carolina’s Lowcountry region, where the Murdaugh family’s powerful legal dynasty originated. On July 14, the police charged Alex Murdaugh with killing his wife and son. Mr. Murdaugh pleaded not guilty.
The Murdaughs are powerful. The family has dominated the legal profession in a rural swath of the state for more than a century. For nearly 90 years, the post of chief prosecutor for a five-county region was held by a Murdaugh. And for even longer, the family’s law firm has been one of the state’s leading tort litigation firms.
There was a botched suicide plot. A day after he was forced out of his family’s law firm for misusing funds, Alex Murdaugh reported that he had been shot in the head. He soon admitted that he had actually asked a former client to kill him because he wanted to leave his older son, Buster, with a $10 million insurance payout. Mr. Murdaugh survived and was charged with fraud.
Other strange deaths revolve around the case. The case has brought new scrutiny to three other deaths in the region that may be tied to the family, including a young man found dead along a road in 2015 and a fatal boat crash in 2019.
Mr. Murdaugh has been accused of swindling millions. The lawyer was arrested on Oct. 14, 2021, and charged with stealing millions of dollars from a settlement intended for the children of a housekeeper who died at the family’s home in 2018 after falling on the front steps.
On May 6, the day that Mr. Murdaugh’s son told him about the discovery of the pills, Mr. Murdaugh’s wife also searched the internet for pill markings in an apparent attempt to identify them, prosecutors said, looking up a description for pills that matched some oxycodone pills. The next morning, Mr. Murdaugh texted his wife, saying: “I am very sorry that I do this to all of you. I love you.”
On May 26, Ms. Murdaugh searched another pill description.
The prosecution has also highlighted a series of inconsistencies in Mr. Murdaugh’s statements to the police and pointed to phone and car location data that it says contradicts his account of his actions on the night of the murders. Perhaps most crucially, prosecutors played a video taken by his slain son that captured Mr. Murdaugh’s voice at the crime scene in the minutes before the murders, despite his repeated claims that he had not been there.
What the prosecution has not shown is any direct evidence conclusively tying Mr. Murdaugh to the crime: There is no murder weapon, no blood on Mr. Murdaugh’s shirt from that night and no witness.
In cross-examining the prosecution witnesses, Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers have also won a string of important concessions, painting the police as sloppy investigators who were in a hurry to pin the murders on Mr. Murdaugh. The lawyers have gotten witnesses to admit that a bloody footprint at the scene of the crime was an officer’s; that the police waited months to search a home that Mr. Murdaugh visited on the night of the crimes; that Mr. Murdaugh had loving relationships with his wife and son; and that Mr. Murdaugh was indicted based in part on false testimony from the special agent who led the investigation.
This week, the defense lawyers tried to shift attention to other possible suspects, noting that an unknown man’s DNA was found under Ms. Murdaugh’s fingernails. They also suggested that the police should have looked into the drug dealers that Mr. Murdaugh was buying pills from, which he said he did by writing large checks — sometimes for as much as $60,000 in a week — to a distant cousin who was purchasing the drugs for him.
Still hanging over the trial is the question of whether Mr. Murdaugh himself will testify. After prosecutors rested, Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers began questioning their first witness, the Colleton County coroner. They will continue to call witnesses next week.
With so many witnesses and so much technical data, jurors will have a large amount of evidence to sift through once deliberations begin. The jurors do not have notepads in the courtroom, so they will have to rely on their memories and the many exhibits that were entered into evidence, including a wealth of reports, maps and other items.
“How this case turns out may well be determined by the quality of the closing arguments,” said Jessica Roth, a professor of criminal law and evidence at Cardozo School of Law in New York and a former federal prosecutor. “How streamlined they are, how clear they are and how well they summarize the evidence and don’t get bogged down in the details.”
Prosecutors say the evidence suggests that Mr. Murdaugh hit his son with two shotgun blasts, the second of which immediately killed him, and then fatally shot his wife multiple times with a rifle. They say he left both victims dead on the ground, roughly two hours after a family meal around the dinner table.
Then, prosecutors have suggested to the jury, Mr. Murdaugh set about creating an alibi, calling his dead wife’s phone and texting her, saying that he was going to visit his mother, who lived a short drive away. On the way there and back, he made a series of phone calls to friends and relatives, returning to the family’s hunting estate about an hour later, just after 10 p.m. At that point, he put in a distraught call to 911, reporting that he had discovered the bodies.
All of this came hours after two key events earlier that day: Mr. Murdaugh had been confronted by his law firm’s financial chief over hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing legal fees that had been in Mr. Murdaugh’s custody. He had also learned — when he received a phone call during that same confrontation — that his ill father had taken a turn for the worse and was near death. The murders, prosecutors argue, were an attempt to gain sympathy and keep the purported embezzlement from coming to light.
Since the murders, Mr. Murdaugh has been criminally charged with stealing about $8.8 million from a range of victims and has been disbarred.
Several prosecution witnesses testified about Mr. Murdaugh’s behavior after the murders. His mother’s caregiver, Shelley Smith, testified that he visited his mother for about 20 minutes on the night of the killings but that Mr. Murdaugh had told her a few days later that he had been there for 30 or 40 minutes. And Maggie Murdaugh’s sister, Marian Proctor, said that as Mr. Murdaugh grieved, he never spoke with her about trying to find the killer and did not seem afraid — as other relatives were — that someone could be out to kill the entire family.
A key to the case is Mr. Murdaugh’s claim — which he repeated with confidence in interviews with the police after the murders — that he had never been at the kennels with his wife and son that evening. He told the police that he had spent time driving around the property with his son that afternoon, and that after dinner, Maggie and Paul had walked out to the kennels, which were about 500 yards from the house.
“I stayed on the couch and I dozed off,” he told the state police in an interview two months after the murders that was played publicly for the first time at trial this week. He said he then got up and drove directly to his mother’s house shortly after 9 p.m.
The police later obtained a video from Paul Murdaugh’s phone in which Alex Murdaugh’s voice could be heard in the background at 8:45 p.m., calling for a dog. Prosecutors have suggested that this was just minutes before the shootings, noting that Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s phones were last unlocked at 8:49 p.m. The defense has yet to significantly address the contradiction, something legal analysts said that Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers would have to confront as they lay out their case.
“The main point of the prosecution’s case has been to establish, resoundingly, a timeline, and to underline, highlight and pound away on every inconsistency with the prosecution timeline,” said Joe McCulloch, a lawyer and former prosecutor in Columbia, S.C., who is also friends with Dick Harpootlian, one of Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers.
“We already get the sense from everything that he’s capable of lying,” Mr. McCulloch said of Mr. Murdaugh. “The question is, is he forgetting? Is he lying? Why is he lying?”