(CNN) — Alex Murdaugh, the disgraced attorney whose dynastic family had significant legal reach in parts of South Carolina’s Lowcountry for decades, faces sentencing Friday after he was found guilty of murdering his wife and 22-year-old son.
After more than a month of listening to dozens of witnesses, jurors took less than three hours Thursday to convict Murdaugh of two counts of murder in the June 2021 killings, as well as two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled to start Friday at 9:30 a.m. in South Carolina’s Colleton County. Prosecutors have indicated they will seek life in prison without the possibility of parole, sparing Murdaugh the death penalty.
“Justice was done today,” lead prosecutor Creighton Waters said in a Thursday night news conference. “It doesn’t matter who your family is. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or people think you have. It doesn’t matter … how prominent you are. If you do wrong, if you break the law, if you murder, then justice will be done in South Carolina.”
Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and younger son, Paul, were found fatally shot on the family’s Islandton property on June 7, 2021. Murdaugh, who took the stand in his own defense last week, maintained he found the bodies after returning from a brief visit to his sick mother that night.
The defense asked for a mistrial after the verdict, but Judge Clifton Newman denied it, saying the jury had enough time to consider the evidence, and that the evidence of guilt was “overwhelming.”
With little to no direct evidence tying Murdaugh to the scene, including no eyewitnesses, the prosecution largely relied on circumstantial evidence, including phone and vehicle tracking systems suggesting Murdaugh’s movements the night of the killings.
Prosecutors argued Murdaugh’s motive was to distract and delay investigations into his growing financial problems. They homed in on a history of deceit, arguing he stole millions of dollars from his former clients and law firm and lied to cover his tracks — theft and lies that Murdaugh admitted in court.
And prosecutors pointed to another lie that played a key role in the case: a video clip that placed Murdaugh at the murder site shortly before the killings, despite his repeated assertions throughout the investigation that he was not there.
The video, recorded by Paul near the family’s dog kennels shortly before the time prosecutors say they were killed, captured Alex Murdaugh’s voice in the background, nearly a dozen friends and family members testified. Murdaugh then testified the voice was his — and that he’d lied to investigators about his whereabouts because he grew paranoid, which he blamed on his addiction to opioid painkillers.
“In the end … it was the victim, Paul Murdaugh, who solved his own murder,” Dave Aronberg, state attorney for Florida’s Palm Beach County, told CNN Thursday night about the trial.
Defense attorneys maintained Murdaugh was a loving father and husband who would not harm his family, and argued authorities did not properly examine other suspects. During closing arguments, the defense mocked the prosecution’s theory of motive as nonsensical, and said he lied about his whereabouts because he was “in the throes of addiction,” not because he was guilty.
The case brought national attention — including Netflix and HBO Max documentaries — to Murdaugh, the former personal injury attorney whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather served as a prosecutor for a portion of southern South Carolina from 1920 to 2006.
Murdaugh was a partner at a powerful law firm with his name on it. But that prominence belied underlying issues, and the killings of his wife and son were followed by accusations of misappropriated funds, his resignation, an alleged suicide-for-hire and insurance scam plot, a stint in rehab for drug addiction, his disbarment and, ultimately, the murder charges.
In a separate case that has not yet gone to trial, Murdaugh faces 99 charges stemming from a slew of alleged financial crimes, including defrauding his clients, former law firm and the government of millions.
What the judge will now consider
Legal experts told CNN Thursday night the judge will likely consider two main factors when deciding the sentence: the nature and the gravity of the crime, including that Murdaugh murdered his own family members.
And several experts said the judge’s wording Thursday night could foreshadow the sentence.
“I thought that the judge — who had been really so even-tempered and calm throughout the trial, he remained calm — but I thought he sort of showed his view of the evidence at last, when he characterized it as ‘overwhelming,'” said Jessica Roth, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law.
What surprised legal experts about the verdict
Some attorneys who kept up with the trial told CNN they didn’t expect the unanimous guilty verdict — especially not as quickly as it came. Murdaugh’s lies are likely what led to the speedy decision, they said.
“They convicted him with conviction,” criminal defense attorney Sara Azari said. “I really thought there was going to be somewhat of a struggle in this jury room. I think they couldn’t get past the lie (about the kennel video).”
Legal experts told CNN Murdaugh’s testimony likely was a decisive point for the group and a double-edged sword. It was an opportunity for jurors to empathize with him while he appeared to put it all on the line, confessing to his drug addiction and repeated lies during financial schemes and the murder investigation, the experts said. But the verdict shows jurors did not believe Murdaugh was credible, the experts said.
Bill Nettles, a former US attorney for South Carolina, said he expected a hung jury — in other words, when jurors are unable to reach a unanimous decision after extended deliberations.
“The one thing you can clearly take away from this was, he had been lying to a lot of people that he loved for a long time, and so he had obviously gotten to be pretty good at it,” Nettles told CNN.
“If he went in there and they believed him, then he would have likely been found not guilty. But once they decide that he’s willing to put himself out there and they don’t believe him, that’s kind of a tough hill to get over,” he added.
Justin Bamberg, a lawyer representing alleged financial crime victims of Murdaugh, said he was also surprised by the speed of the verdict. When he heard a verdict had been reached less than three hours after deliberations started, he suspected Murdaugh would be convicted, he said.
“I truly think that the jury recognized this man lied to everybody,” including clients, and that the jury concluded he was lying to them also, he told CNN.
The victims Bamberg represents felt Thursday’s verdict was the start of holding Murdaugh accountable, he said.
“Every single person who’s been victimized by Alex has wanted one thing: complete accountability. And complete accountability started here today with this jury verdict,” he said.
(Copyright (c) 2022 CNN. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)