After hearing from dozens of witnesses in the high-profile murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, a South Carolina jury last week heard from the man himself after he took the stand – a move legal experts say was risky but could have helped his case.
In dramatic testimony, which included heated exchanges between Murdaugh and the prosecutor who cross-examined him, Murdaugh admitted to lying repeatedly – including to law enforcement about his whereabouts on the night of the killings – and to stealing millions of dollars from his law firm’s client settlements over the course of roughly two decades. But, he testified, murder is not among his list of wrongdoings.
Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to the June 7, 2021, killings of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, who were fatally shot on the family’s Islandton, South Carolina, property.
Prosecutors accuse Murdaugh of killing the two to try and prevent his alleged financial crimes from being uncovered. The defense has portrayed Murdaugh as a loving father and husband being wrongly accused while the real killer is on the loose.
Having Murdaugh testify was a bold move and likely a calculated risk by the defense, legal experts told CNN. While many attorneys don’t like to put their clients on the stand because it’s hard to predict what questions prosecutors will ask and how the jury will perceive the accused, Murdaugh was the prime defendant for the job, experts said.
“If you’re going to have somebody testify, having a lawyer who’s smart, who’s been in the courtroom, who’s lied for 20 years … that’s the guy you want on the stand,” criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Mark Eiglarsh said. “And all it takes is one juror to connect with him emotionally.”
Here’s what else legal experts thought of Murdaugh’s testimony.
While defendants can often find themselves at a disadvantage when taking the stand, in this case, several attorneys told CNN Murdaugh practically had no choice but to testify.
That’s because the prosecution pointed to a huge question throughout the trial that he had to answer: multiple witnesses identified Murdaugh’s voice in a video clip filmed at the family’s dog kennels, which authorities say was recorded shortly before the killings and near where the bodies were found.
Throughout the course of the investigation, Murdaugh lied to authorities and maintained he was not at the kennels at the time.
But he changed his story on the stand last week, acknowledged his voice is heard in the clip and admitted to jurors he lied about his whereabouts on the night of the killings. But Murdaugh remained emphatic in his denial that he shot his wife and son.
Murdaugh told the court he lied about being at the kennels because of “paranoid thinking” stemming from his yearslong drug addiction to opioid painkillers as well as his distrust of investigators. That paranoid thinking, Murdaugh testified, was triggered when detectives began to ask him about his relationship with his wife and son.
“It’s the million dollar question that everybody wanted to know: why did you lie that you were not at the kennels? So he had to give an explanation as to that,” criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Bernarda Villalona said. “That’s what I think is the main reason why the criminal defense attorney in this case made a calculated decision to put him on the stand.”
“The question will be was it worth it?”
See what happened when Alex Murdaugh took the stand
There are two key issues in Murdaugh’s testimony that could backfire, experts suggested.
Putting it all out on the line and coming clean, as Murdaugh appeared to do during the trial by sharing details about his drug addiction and admitting to a slew of financial crimes, may have been an attempt by his defense to garner sympathy from jurors, legal experts said.
“They’re trying to use it for a very positive effect, to show that he had a problem (with addiction), he is sympathetic for trying to wrestle with it and that that may have made him paranoid and caused him to distrust the police and telling them this lie about not being there,” defense attorney Shan Wu said.
“But if he was that addled by the addiction, he might have been acting very irrationally at the time and the jury might believe that this very opioid-addicted person went off into this paranoid frenzy and did slaughter his own family,” Wu noted. “So, it’s a double-edged sword.”
There’s another big reason admitting to lies could backfire, attorneys said: It underscores Murdaugh is not credible.
When questioning him, prosecutor Creighton Waters noted Murdaugh, for years, looked his clients in the eye and lied about their settlements while taking the money for himself, just like he lied for months to investigators, family and friends about what he did the night of the killings. Waters also noted discrepancies in Murdaugh’s new timeline of events.
“What they’re doing, the prosecutors, is saying he’s a liar, he’s a cheat, he can’t be trusted and you should not at all take whatever he says at face value,” criminal defense attorney and CNN Legal Analyst Joey Jackson said.
In many ways, Murdaugh was a model witness, experts said. He looked straight at jurors when he spoke, and grew visibly emotional talking about his slain wife and son, often referring to them by endearing nicknames. He called his son “Paul-Paul,” during testimony, and often referred to his wife as “Mags.”
“That’s one of the biggest sticking points for the prosecution in this trial: it’s would he really do this?” said Jessica Roth, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law. “Despite all the other crimes he’s admitted to, would he actually kill his wife and son?
Murdaugh also offered jurors alternatives as to who may have committed the crime – therefore helping sow reasonable doubt, Jackson said. Murdaugh talked about his addiction – hinting at “unsavory people” he may have been coming into contact with for drugs who may have harmed his family – and also nodded at threats that Paul allegedly received after his involvement in a 2019 boating accident in which a young woman was killed.
“The defense, in doing that, presents reasonable doubt,” Jackson added.
Finally, Murdaugh was able to use his decades of experience as an attorney to control the narrative when he was questioned by prosecutors, experts said. During those lines of questioning, prosecutors ideally want to elicit only “Yes” or “No” responses from a defendant to try and drive their point home, legal experts said. But Murdaugh continuously gave long explanations when responding. In that way, experts noted, he potentially was able to humanize himself more, and look more sympathetic to the jurors.
“I think it actually went very well for the defendant and rather poorly for the prosecutor,” Wu said. “Murdaugh (was) a tough witness, I mean he’s a skilled lawyer himself. He really changed the whole tempo of this from a cross (examination), where the person doing the cross should be controlling him, into one where he was able to control the pace.”
What will be key in the end, several attorneys said, is whether Murdaugh’s long-winded answers were able to convince at least one person on the jury panel – which could save him from conviction on the charges and potentially spending the rest of his life behind bars.
“You never know with a jury,” Wu said. “It only takes one.”
Court is expected to resume Monday morning.