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Opinion In Murdaugh murder trial, the path to conviction remains unclear

Alex Murdaugh, center, on trial for murder, listens to evidence taken from his cellphone on Wednesday in Walterboro, S.C. (Joshua Boucher/AP)
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WALTERBORO, S.C. — Following Alex Murdaugh’s double-murder trial requires the focus of a dissectologist, the memory of a Tempur-Pedic mattress, the mental acuity of a mathematician and an advanced degree in genealogy. The joke about everybody in the South being cousins isn’t really a joke.

Murdaugh, a fourth-generation lawyer in a dynastic legal family, is charged with killing his wife, Maggie, 52, and his youngest son, Paul, 22, on June 7, 2021, at the family hunting compound, Moselle, in rural Colleton County. His story is so wild, convoluted and deeply Southern that his trial is the courtroom equivalent of Russian nesting dolls — a trial within a trial within a trial.

It’s too bad Flannery O’Connor isn’t around to do the story justice. The small, Lowcountry towns; the gardens and guns; the hunting camp; the skinning shack; hog hunting by moonlight; thermal scopes attached to .300 Blackout guns; the grotesque crime scene covered in blood, brain matter and skull fragments; the alleged drug dealing; a dog named Bubba; money, greed and death all around.

I’ve wondered how the jurors are faring without writing materials as experts have delivered mind-bending minutiae, from how many steps the defendant took between 6:52:27 p.m. and 7:02:05 p.m. (283) to what he texted to his dead wife at 9:47:23: “Call me babe.”

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The state’s case depends heavily on these micro details, which it argues show how Murdaugh murdered his wife and son. I’ve done my best to keep track, even charting Murdaugh’s movements and cellphone activity on poster board. And still, the path to a conviction isn’t clear.

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One bombshell piece of evidence that shook courtroom observers from their private thoughts was a video that might place Murdaugh at the dog kennels where the killings took place — potentially revealing that he was not napping on a couch while Maggie and Paul went down to the kennels, as he told police.

Prosecutors say Paul shot the time-stamped video for his buddy Rogan Gibson, whose dog was staying at Moselle. Only the dog is seen, but three voices are heard. Gibson, who grew up next door to the Murdaughs and testified that he considered them family, identified the voices as belonging to Paul, Maggie and Alex — with “100 percent” certainty.

Another close friend of Paul’s, Will Loving, said he was just as sure about who was talking. These young men brought humanity to a courtroom narrative that had been dominated by numbers, and the empathy they engendered was almost palpable. Gibson’s voice cracked when asked about his last phone call with Paul around 8:40 p.m. regarding taking a video of the dog. Asked if that was the last time he ever heard Paul’s voice, he replied barely audibly, “It was.”

Kathleen Parker: In South Carolina, a dark family tragedy. And now an arrest.

Each day, courtroom observers come and go, but three have been constants. One is a local woman who told me she was hoping to see the powerful fall. She might get her wish, eventually. Murdaugh is surely going to jail, but whether or not for murder remains to be seen. His indictments on about 100 charges related to other crimes, including money laundering, as well as stealing money from clients, friends, his own brother and the family law firm, could earn him more than 700 years in prison.

The law firm’s chief financial officer, Jeanne Seckinger, said Murdaugh had stolen millions of dollars from clients and the firm.

Her testimony was heard without the jury present as lead prosecutor Creighton Waters tried to persuade Judge Clifton Newman to include Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes as evidence critical to establishing a motive for the murders. The financial investigation, he argued, would be part of the stream of “unfathomable” events that came crashing down on Murdaugh on June 7, 2021.

Among other catastrophes in the mix was the criminal lawsuit against Paul in the 2019 boating accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Murdaugh’s financial records were being sought for a hearing in that case, scheduled for the week of the killings.

Another crucial revelation: Seckinger testified that she confronted Murdaugh on the morning of June 7 about missing money, a sum of $792,000 — a mere speck in the grand scheme of his alleged thefts. Among his victims were the children of his longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died in 2018 from a “trip and fall” accident at the Moselle house. Murdaugh somehow allegedly managed to successfully sue himself for an insurance claim to the tune of $4.3 million, which he paid to himself.

Kathleen Parker: The shocking saga of South Carolina’s Murdaugh family

So, June 7 was already the worst day of Murdaugh’s life even before his wife and son were killed. That day, Murdaugh allegedly called Maggie at their Edisto beach house and asked her to meet him at Moselle.

“Unfathomable” is a good word for what must have been going through Murdaugh’s mind on that day. Whether he was using drugs the day of the killings isn’t known, but his addiction to opioids — and an alleged side hustle in drug trafficking — came out after the killings when he fumbled his own alleged assisted suicide. Murdaugh allegedly asked his friend Curtis “Eddie” Smith to shoot him as he faked car trouble on a rural road. But Murdaugh’s head was merely grazed.

Whether Murdaugh really sought to die that day, three months after the killings, is questionable. It seems just as likely that he hoped to create a scenario in which he was being hunted by the same people who shot and killed his family. It is hard to read this man’s mind.

Everybody in town has a theory about what happened. The time stamps will tell — or they won’t. There seems to be little logic to the theory that Murdaugh would be so undone by his financial misdeeds that he’d kill his family to create sympathy and divert attention, as the prosecution has suggested. Moreover, the family seemed on June 7 to be in good spirits, with laughter heard in the dog video.

In a separate Snapchat video Paul took of his dad earlier in the day, Murdaugh is heard laughing and seen clowning with a recently planted tree bending down toward its roots. In two texts on Maggie’s phone, she wants Murdaugh to “relax” and “take care of himself.”

What are we missing?

For now, there’s reason to wonder if something has eluded investigators — something so horrific and unthinkable that Alex Murdaugh felt he had no other choice or, my own suspicion, that something got bungled on June 7. Badly.