Across the chasms of race and class that have long divided and defined South Carolina, Alex Murdaugh appeared in the life of Pamela Pinckney at her darkest moment, offering to help.
It was 2009. Murdaugh, a white man, was a personal injury lawyer and the scion of a storied multigenerational legal dynasty that held sway for decades over a five-county swath of the Lowcountry.
Pinckney, a Black woman, was in the hospital. She and her children had been on their way to a dollar store when her SUV flipped, resulting in serious spinal injuries to her 19-year-old son Hakeem that rendered him quadriplegic.
Murdaugh sued the manufacturer of the tires on the SUV, eventually winning the family a substantial settlement.
Then Murdaugh quietly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars that the family was owed.
“He seemed to be a nice person,” Pinckney said. “But looks are very much deceiving.”
Pinckney was only one of his victims. Murdaugh’s long, cruel and largely low-profile run of what prosecutors said was multimillion-dollar embezzlement and theft exploded into one of the most widely documented American crime stories of the decade as Murdaugh, 54, went on trial for the murder of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul. Podcasters, reporters and TV producers rushed to South Carolina to tell a Shakespearean story of filicide, anchored by a main character whose button-down shirts seem to cover a terrifying moral void.
One reason the Murdaugh case became a national sensation – a small-town murder trial suddenly carried live on television – was its Lowcountry setting, with its Southern Gothic touches of Spanish moss, oyster roasts and preppies behaving badly. The trial revealed how a powerful lawyer in a hidden corner of the South had acted with impunity for years, fleecing clients and seemingly remaining above the law in a region his family had dominated for a century.
Now that issue hangs not only over the Murdaugh home base of Hampton, where many local people wonder whether Alex Murdaugh’s murder conviction this month means the family’s long reign of influence is finally over, but across the entire state, which has been asked to confront lingering questions about its own history.
Was Murdaugh an abnormal holdover from a vanishing, clannish South Carolina culture where small groups of wealthy white men held special privilege? Or was his story evidence that, even as the state has been transformed by an influx of global businesses and millions of newcomers, such traditions have not quite gone away?
“There’s still some awfully strange inefficiencies, I’ll just leave it at that, that still persist,” Mark Sanford, who served two terms as governor, said of an enduring culture in the state that is “based on who you know”.
Predictions that the old ways were waning have been around for decades. In the early 1990s, the state was rocked by political scandals that resulted in the convictions of numerous state lawmakers, both Black and white, for crimes including bribery, extortion and conspiracy, and the indictment of James Holderman, former president of the University of South Carolina, who was known to dole out scholarships and other perks to the children of some of the state’s most powerful residents.
At the time, Governor Carroll Campbell Jr. said the prosecutions showed the state was moving away from a time when it was “dominated by rural barons who operated under their own code”. He added, “We had something of an oligarchy down here for a lot of years, and now we’re making a transition from it.”
Murdaugh, however, seemed to relish his position as part of a microregional Southern oligarchy. He had blue police lights installed in his car, and he flashed a law enforcement-style badge on his dashboard, on the grounds that he was a volunteer assistant prosecutor – even though, during his trial, he testified that he had been involved in helping with just five criminal trials over a 23-year span.
For decades, his relatives supplied the five-county judicial district with its prosecutors. The family law firm, founded by Randolph Murdaugh Sr. in 1910, forged close connections to sheriffs, judges and potential jurors, and for years it made millions by taking advantage of a law that made it easy for people injured anywhere in the state to try their cases in tiny Hampton County.
Before a state Supreme Court decision closed that loophole, the American Tort Reform Association declared Hampton a “judicial hellhole” and noted that at one point in 2004, the Murdaugh-founded law firm, then known as Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Elzroth & Detrick, represented plaintiffs in 96 of the county’s 156 pending civil jury cases.
It was clever work, and perfectly legal. Decades earlier, however, Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Jr., had been accused by federal prosecutors of being the mastermind of a bootlegging and protection scheme in and around Colleton County, part of the five-county judicial district, the 14th, where his father had been the first local prosecutor.
Federal authorities alleged that untaxed whiskey production had been thriving in the area for years, abetted by local authorities.
Most of the players were found guilty, but not Randolph Murdaugh, whose lawyers argued that witnesses who had spoken against him were motivated by personal or political grudges.
Decades later, the Murdaugh family became tangled in another criminal case when a fatal boat crash in 2019 led to charges against Paul Murdaugh, the younger of Alex Murdaugh’s two sons. Authorities said Paul Murdaugh, who was 19 at the time, was drunk when, after a night of partying, he crashed the boat, owned by his father, into a bridge. A teenage passenger, Mallory Beach, was thrown from the boat by the impact and was killed; her body was recovered more than a week later.
Law enforcement and surveillance records have raised questions about whether police were sloppy in their investigation of the crash or gave Paul Murdaugh favourable treatment. One of the boat’s six passengers told a Department of Natural Resources officer shortly after the crash that Paul Murdaugh had been driving the boat, but the officer wrote in a report that the passenger had said he was not sure who was driving.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of Connor Cook, one of the boat’s passengers, notes that authorities did not take a blood sample from Paul Murdaugh or conduct a field sobriety test. Blood later drawn at a hospital found Murdaugh’s blood alcohol level to be 0.28, more than three times the legal limit.
At Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial, prosecutors produced a photo of him taken at the hospital on the night of the crash, when he showed up with his law enforcement-style badge dangling from his pants pocket. According to the lawsuit, Murdaugh spoke with Cook at the hospital, telling him to “keep his mouth shut” and to tell law enforcement he did not know who was driving the boat. He told Cook to hire a lawyer named Cory Fleming, without revealing that Fleming was Murdaugh’s close friend.
Paul Murdaugh ultimately was charged with boating under the influence causing death, and the case was still pending when he and his mother were murdered.
Alex Murdaugh admitted during testimony in his murder trial that he had stolen millions of dollars, but he maintained that he did not kill his wife and son. He said he believed that someone who was angry over the boat crash must have targeted his family. But prosecutors argued that he committed the murders of his wife and son in a bid to gain sympathy and keep his financial misdeeds concealed as expanding investigations threatened to force them into the light of day.
Among his financial victims was Arthur Badger, whose wife was killed by a UPS truck that crossed a centre line, leaving their six children without a mother. Murdaugh admitted that he stole $1.3 million ($1.9 million) from Badger’s settlement. There was also Deon Martin, who was injured in a car crash, from whom Murdaugh admitted stealing $500,000. Murdaugh did not dispute that he took $1 million from two young girls whose mother had died in a car crash as a loan without their knowledge.
In one instance, state authorities said, Fleming took $8,000 from Pamela Pinckney’s trust and used it to fly himself and Murdaugh to the college baseball World Series in 2012.
After Murdaugh was sentenced last week, the state’s law enforcement chief, Mark Keel, hinted that more indictments were possible. “This case served notice to anyone who aided or assisted Alex Murdaugh in committing any crime that justice will be sought,” he said.
In Hampton, the tiny inland city that has long served as the Murdaughs’ seat of power, the law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Elzroth & Detrick has changed its name to the Parker Law Group, moving into the background the now-infamous surname shared by the firm’s founding partner.
It was not lost on South Carolinians that the mystique of that name had not proved in the end to be stronger than the justice system. In fact, with all of the recent attention on the family’s wealth and power, the family name may have become a liability.
“There were a lot of people that, at the outset of the trial, thought the Murdaugh name was going to dictate the result,” said Joe McCulloch, a lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina, who is representing Cook. “And it may have – just not in the way that people anticipated, and not in the way that it did in 1956 with his grandfather.”
Pinckney said that she saw the murder conviction as a first step toward justice and that she was still waiting for her day in court to recover the money she lost.
“The victims from what he’s done in the murder, they had closure in their portion of their lives,” she said. “But it’s other people who are still waiting for closure in their lives.”
Sanford, the former governor, said one of the strongest indications that South Carolina was changing for the better was the sentencing hearing for Murdaugh, which was presided over by Clifton Newman, a Black judge.
There was something “rich and relevant”, Sanford said, “that you have this Black judge sentencing this guy – this lily-white guy – to life, whose family has been king for more than 100 years.”
At the hearing, Newman spoke slowly and carefully as he chastised Murdaugh for lying during his testimony and reminded him that he and his family had been prosecuting people for years in the very same courtroom. “Many have received the death penalty,” the judge noted, “probably for lesser conduct.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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