WALTERBORO, S.C. — Alex Murdaugh, the prominent South Carolina lawyer charged with murdering his wife and younger son, was “destroyed” and “heartbroken” after the killings, his surviving son testified on Tuesday.
The son, Buster Murdaugh, also told jurors that his father sounded “normal” when he spoke with him earlier on the night of June 7, 2021, about 20 minutes after when prosecutors say the murders took place. Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers say he had yet to discover the bodies of his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and younger son, Paul Murdaugh, 22.
The testimony was the most that Buster Murdaugh, 26, had said publicly in the 20 months since his mother and only sibling were shot to death at the family’s vast hunting estate. Still, in appearing as a witness for his father’s defense, Mr. Murdaugh, who has sat behind the defense table throughout the past three weeks of the trial, did not address much of the key evidence in the case. He was subject only to a brief cross-examination by the prosecutors who are seeking to imprison his father for life.
Buster Murdaugh testified that he spoke with his parents and brother nearly every day on the phone, and that his father called him on the night of the killings to let him know that he was on his way to his ailing mother’s house to check in on her. Prosecutors have said that the call occurred after his wife and son were already dead and was an attempt to build an alibi.
A second call came later that night, when Buster Murdaugh said his father phoned to tell him about the murders.
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.
“I just sat there for a minute,” he recalled. “I was in shock.”
He said he spent much of the following weeks with his father, who, prosecutors emphasized, rarely left his sight. They stayed at the homes of several relatives — including Maggie Murdaugh’s parents’ home — and issued a joint statement offering $100,000 for information about the murders.
In response to questions from Jim Griffin, one of Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers, Buster Murdaugh said that his family generally handled disagreements civilly, “like adults,” and that they were never violent.
Several questions have come up during the trial over whether Mr. Murdaugh appeared to fear that he or Buster could also be in danger from whomever had killed his wife and son. Buster Murdaugh said that he and his father did talk about safety concerns in the days after the murders.
He also refuted a prosecution witness’s claim that Alex Murdaugh had said, “I did him so bad” during an interview with the police three days after the murders. Buster Murdaugh said it was clear his father was saying, “They did him so bad,” referring to whoever had killed Paul Murdaugh, and that he had said the same thing in conversations around that time.
Prosecutors say the evidence shows that Mr. Murdaugh carried out the murders to gain sympathy and draw attention away from investigations into his personal finances. The financial chief of his family law firm testified that she confronted Mr. Murdaugh over a missing fee payment on the day of the killings. He has since been charged with embezzling $8.8 million from his law firm and clients.
Prosecutors have used cellphone and car location data, as well as a video taken by Mr. Murdaugh’s son in his final moments, to contradict Mr. Murdaugh’s account of his whereabouts. Mr. Murdaugh told the police that he had not gone out with his wife and son that day to the kennels where the killings occurred, but a video taken by Paul Murdaugh at 8:45 p.m. captured Mr. Murdaugh’s voice in the background. Prosecutors have suggested that Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were killed four minutes later, noting that their phones never unlocked again after 8:49 p.m.
About 15 minutes later, Mr. Murdaugh drove from the estate to his mother’s house and visited her briefly before returning home. He also texted and called his wife several times, and made a series of calls, including the one to his elder son, while driving to and from his mother’s house.
The case has attracted widespread attention in part because Mr. Murdaugh was a prominent lawyer in the rural, South Carolina Lowcountry region for many years. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as the top prosecutor for a five-county area and worked for the family firm. Mr. Murdaugh has since been disbarred.