'Just couldn't contain himself': How Alex Murdaugh's risky testimony ultimately brought him down

ByRay Sanchez, CNN
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Alex Murdaugh murders trial
Alex Murdaugh murders trialState authorities reopening the investigation into Stephen Smith's death after saying they found new evidence while looking into the Murdaugh murders.

Convicted former attorney Alex Murdaugh's decision to take the stand at his double murder trial was not entirely surprising given his family's legal legacy stretching back to the early 1900s in coastal South Carolina.

But legal experts say it was ultimately a costly maneuver for the scion of the well-connected Murdaugh clan, which prosecuted crime for three successive generations across the state's rural low country.

"Being a skilled attorney, I think he thought he could outsmart the jurors," attorney and legal affairs commentator Areva Martin said.

On Friday, one week after Murdaugh, 54, spent hours on the witness stand trying to convince a jury of his innocence, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murders of his wife and son.

"He had to testify. There were too many lies," CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said Saturday. "Obviously the jury felt that he was conning them."

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Murdaugh's biggest lie perhaps was denying for a year and half that he was anywhere near his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, when they were fatally shot on the family's Islandton property on June 7, 2021.

On the stand, Murdaugh maintained he didn't kill them but found their bodies after returning from a brief visit to his sick mother that night.

A key piece of evidence came from Paul Murdaugh, who recorded a video moments before he was gunned down and killed. It showed a family dog near the kennels on the property. It also captured his father's voice in the background, placing Alex Murdaugh at the scene of the crime.

The video, which Murdaugh didn't know existed before the trial, eliminated his alibi. The longtime lawyer took the stand in a courthouse where a portrait of Murdaugh's grandfather had adorned a wall before the trial. He sought to explain why he lied about his whereabouts.

"He had never faced accountability in his life and had always been able to escape that -- and that was more important to him than anything," lead prosecutor Creighton Waters told CNN.

"That's why I was always convinced that he would testify in this case. That he was assured that he could talk his way out of it one more time. Not out of all the trouble but certainly talk his way out of this. Obviously the jury saw otherwise."

'A good liar, but not good enough'

Within moments of taking the stand, Murdaugh acknowledged his voice is heard in the video that appeared to be taken at the dog kennels where the bodies were found, saying he lied to investigators about being there earlier that evening because of "paranoid thinking" stemming from his drug addiction.

Over the course of the trial, numerous witnesses identified Murdaugh's voice in the background of the footage. But Murdaugh was emphatic that he "didn't shoot my wife or my son. Anytime. Ever."

Craig Moyer, a juror who helped convict Murdaugh on Thursday, told ABC News it took the panel less than an hour to reach a unanimous decision.

The video was crucial.

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"I could hear his voice clearly," Moyer told ABC. "And everybody else could too."

Murdaugh was "a good liar," Moyer said, "but not good enough."

Moyer told ABC he "didn't see any true remorse or compassion" from Murdaugh. On the stand, Murdaugh "didn't cry," Moyer said. "All he did was blow snot."

Waters said he simply wanted to get Murdaugh talking during cross examination. And he did.

"We have to remember this guy was an experienced lawyer," Waters said. "He's a part-time assistant solicitor and there's 100 years of prosecution legacy in his family... I felt like he believed he could look at that jury and really convince them. But I felt if I got him talking he would eventually lie and they would get to see that in real time."

Murdaugh always wanted to testify

Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian defended the decision to let Murdaugh testify, saying his credibility was under question because of financial wrongdoings. He said the defense team plans to appeal the sentence within 10 days.

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.

"Once they got that character information -- 'he's a thief, he's a liar' -- then this jury had to think that he's a despicable human being, and not to be believed," Harpootlian told reporters after sentencing, referring to evidence about the financial crimes introduced at the murder trial. Murdaugh, he added, always wanted to take the stand.

Harpootlian told CNN it was "inexplicable that he would execute his son and his wife in that fashion, in my mind."

Another defense lawyer, Jim Griffin, said putting Murdaugh on the stand showed the jury his client's "emotions about Maggie and Paul, which are very raw and real."

'He just couldn't contain himself'

Still, putting Murdaugh on the stand was a risky move, according to legal experts.

"His testimony was very poor. In fact, I think it was borderline atrocious," jury consultant Alan Tuerkheimer told CNN. "Jurors don't like it when witnesses are being questioned and they don't answer and what he kept doing continually was going beyond the scope of the questions."

Tuerkheimer added that Murdaugh "kept trying to interject his own narrative. He was evasive, I thought he prevaricated a lot and his testimony was self serving and jurors do not like that. He should have stuck to quick yes or no answers when he was being crossed."

Tuerkheimer also questioned the effectiveness of Murdaugh frequently referring to his dead wife and son as "Mags" and "Paul Paul."

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"It's effective if it's genuine and it just did not come off as genuine. Look, lawyers love to testify. They use words to persuade people. And once he was on the stand, he just couldn't contain himself," Tuerkheimer said of Murdaugh.

"And when he was using those terms in trying to endear himself with the jury, they just didn't think that it was authentic. They rejected it and it was a Hail Mary that he had to testify. And, like most Hail Marys, it didn't work."

On Thursday, after more than a month and dozens of witnesses, the jury convicted 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.

The next day, after his sentencing, Murdaugh -- wearing a brown jumpsuit and handcuffs -- was escorted out of a courthouse that once symbolized his family's history of power and privilege in the region.

"For him the chance of convincing one or two jurors that he might be a liar, he might be a thief, but he's not a killer, was worth taking that risk," defense attorney Misty Marris told CNN Saturday. "But in my opinion, the testimony was what actually sunk him."

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