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Why Alex Murdaugh is unlikely to be sentenced to death penalty in South Carolina

Alex Murdaugh is led out of the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., by sheriff's deputies after being convicted Thursday on two counts of murder in the shooting deaths of his wife and son. (Chris Carlson/AP)
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In a case that has captured nationwide attention, Alex Murdaugh was convicted Thursday evening of murdering his wife and son in South Carolina, where the death penalty is legal. But prosecutors have said they are not seeking capital punishment.

“After carefully reviewing this case and all the surrounding facts, we have decided to seek life without parole,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a December statement. Robert Kittle, a spokesperson for Wilson, said that is still the state’s intention following the guilty verdict.

Murdaugh was also convicted on two counts of possession of a weapon while committing a violent crime, which could add an additional five years each of prison time, though that does not apply when a defendant is sentenced to life without parole, according to South Carolina law.

He faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and potentially life behind bars without parole.

To pursue the death penalty, the state would have to prove there is an “aggravating circumstance,” which would include murdering a child under 11, murdering a witness or a potential witness to a crime, or killing two people “by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct,” among other scenarios. With the state electing to pursue life without parole, it is unlikely Murdaugh will face capital punishment.

The last execution in South Carolina was in 2011, according to the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Murdaugh’s defense attorneys said at the trial’s start that no physical evidence tied him to the shootings, which took place about 50 miles from Charleston. Prosecutors said Murdaugh killed them to gain sympathy and obscure his swindling of nearly $9 million from law partners and clients, adding that he has since tried to “manufacture an alibi.” The jury took under three hours to side with the prosecution after the trial, which lasted more than a month.

Murdaugh, 54, maintained his innocence amid intense news media coverage and fascination across the country. Documentaries on Netflix and HBO scrutinized a family that, before the killings, was known across South Carolina as a powerful lineage that ran the Lowcountry’s legal system.

In the last days of the trial, Murdaugh decided to take the stand in what legal experts described as a risky move, opening him to cross-examination that mostly focused on how the lawyer stole money from clients, including teenagers and a quadriplegic man. He freely admitted to these accusations, but he maintained that he didn’t kill his wife and son. Legal experts said the fraud charges themselves could have brought decades of prison time.

Murdaugh will spend Thursday night in a cell at the Colleton County Jail, Kittle said in an email to The Washington Post.

Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman scheduled the sentencing hearing for 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Ben Brasch, Andrea Salcedo, Tim Bella and Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.