South Carolina’s trial of the century begins in earnest on Wednesday after jurors are expected to finally be seated in the double murder case against disgraced and disbarred legal scion Richard “Alex” Murdaugh, 54, who stands accused of killing his wife and youngest son in the midsummer of 2021 as a way to escape impending, cascading ruin.
The circumstances leading up to the murders include over a century’s worth of time where the Murdaugh name was the equivalent of legal gold in the Palmetto State’s Lowcountry region. Beginning in 1920, the patriarch of the Murdaugh family served, uninterrupted, as the 14th circuit solicitor, and the lead prosecutor for Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Allendale, and Colleton counties. Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh III, last held the position in 2006. He died three days after the slayings.
Amassing such power, prestige, and the sobriquet “Murdaugh Country” used by locals for the five-county district they controlled for 96 years, has resulted in a lengthy and tangled cast of characters longer than a Robert Altman film. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of the key figures likely to play a role during the unprecedented trial.
Alex Murdaugh, his own defense attorneys concede, was the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s prime suspect in his family’s murders from the very beginning. He is represented by a legendary trial attorney and South Carolina State Senator, Richard Ara “Dick” Harpootlian, and former assistant U.S. attorney Jim Griffin. The pair have already secured at least one pre-trial victory for their client with an expansive motion for discovery okayed by South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton B. Newman. Harpootlian and Griffin also welcomed the state deciding against seeking the death penalty – forestalling any legal maneuvering by the defense that would have come on that issue. The defendant has maintained his innocence throughout the homicide proceedings against him. While the current trial will be for the murder case, Murdaugh is also accused of 81 additional crimes, mostly of a financial nature, including insurance fraud, property fraud, money laundering, and computer fraud. Prosecutors also allege he stole millions from a fund that should have gone to the family of his late, former housekeeper, who died on his family’s estate. Alex Murdaugh is additionally being sued in civil court by his family’s former, and now defunct, law firm for allegedly stealing untold sums of client money.
Margaret “Maggie” Kennedy Branstetter Murdaugh
Maggie Murdaugh, 52, was killed along with her youngest son at the 1,770-acre hunting lodge known locally as “Moselle” due to its prominent position at 4147 Moselle Road in Colleton County, S.C. The property was actually held in her name at the time of her death. Rumors, allegedly placed with the media by anonymous law enforcement sources, swirled that Maggie Murdaugh had discussed the idea of divorcing her husband with an attorney roughly six weeks before she was killed – after she began inspecting the source of the family’s wealth. The defendant sought to swat down such speculation after he was arrested for another crime – but well before being charged for the death of his wife and son. The divorce issue is likely to linger and may come up during the state’s efforts to convict him.
Paul Terry Murdaugh
Paul Murdaugh, 22, is the younger of Alex and Maggie Murdaugh’s two sons. In February 2019, allegedly drunk at the time, he was involved in a fatal boating accident that left a 19-year-old girl dead. The girl’s body was only discovered seven days after the crash and the resulting controversy led many in the region to wonder if the Murdaugh family’s longstanding legal largesse had any impact on the investigation. Those worries were exacerbated when the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office – the agency that would have normally had jurisdiction over the case – recused themselves due to the family’s extant ties to the office. Alex Murdaugh, while until recently a partner with the family’s nationally-known private practice, also occasionally worked in the prosecutor’s office. Paul Murdaugh was facing three criminal charges related to the boat crash when he died along with his mother. He pleaded not guilty and was free on $50,000 bond. A trial date had yet to be scheduled and the charges were dismissed when he died.
Richard Alexander Jr. “Buster” Murdaugh
Little is publicly known about Buster Murdaugh, the elder of Alex and Maggie Murdaugh’s two sons. According to The State, he graduated from Wofford College in 2018 and attended the University of South Carolina Law School but, according to anonymous sources, “left after a cheating scandal in 2019.” He has not been quoted in the media about his father’s legal troubles or his family’s deaths. But he did previously have some legal troubles of his own. In an amended complaint, he was named as a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family Mallory Beach, the girl who died in the boat crash. According to the Beach family, Buster Murdaugh allowed his brother to use his driver’s license in order to illegally buy alcohol from Parker’s Kitchen convenience store. Earlier this month, Buster Murdaugh and the girl’s surviving relatives reached a tentative settlement, premised, in part, on the idea that Buster Murdaugh had “suffered enough.”
Mallory Beach, 19, died on Feb. 24, 2019, in the infamous boating accident off the waters of Parris Island. She was thrown off the boat from the impact when the vessel, piloted by Paul Murdaugh, hit a bridge piling around 2:00 a.m. Beach was missing for almost seven days following the crash. Responding officers with the Port Royal Police described the surviving underage partygoers as “grossly intoxicated.” The Beach family’s attorney, Mark Tinsley, explicitly alleged law enforcement may have sought to improperly influence the investigation. Paul Murdaugh, notably, was not interviewed at the scene. There’s also an investigation into whether multiple members of the Murdaugh family obstructed justice immediately after Beach died. Days after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were murdered, Alex Murdaugh’s brothers, John Marvin Murdaugh and Randolph “Randy” Murdaugh appeared on Good Morning America to say their nephew had been threatened online over Beach’s death – and insisted their brother had nothing to do with his wife and son’s deaths.
Gloria Harriott Satterfield
Gloria Satterfield, 57, worked as the Murdaugh family housekeeper for over two decades. She allegedly died in what has been described as a “trip and fall accident” at Moselle on Feb. 26, 2018. After her passing, Alex Murdaugh asserted legal responsibility and sued himself in order to obtain lucrative insurance proceeds for the deceased woman’s family. Except, prosecutors allege, he pocketed over $4 million from the insurance settlements with the help of Murdaugh family friend and attorney Corey Fleming – who is also charged with financial crimes. Satterfield’s sons, Brian “Little B” Harriott and Michael Anthony “Tony” Satterfield later recovered nearly $7 million from the beleaguered, since-shuttered Murdaugh family law firm. Another wrinkle developed in September 2021, when SLED opened an inquiry into the housekeeper’s death – due to numerous inconsistencies with how her death was reported and the resulting lack of information about her cause of death due to no autopsy being performed at the time. Investigators received permission to exhume her body in June 2022. It is presently unclear if any criminal charges will be filed. Eric Bland, an attorney for the Satterfield family, told Law&Crime he believes a hung jury is a distinct possibility in the Alex Murdaugh trial.
Stephen Smith, 19, was perhaps the first body to pile up around the Murdaugh family. He was found dead on Sandy Run Road, of blunt force trauma, in Hampton County, S.C. on July 8, 2015. Shifting narratives have plagued the case. According to his mother, Sandy Smith, the family was told her son was shot and beaten up before authorities formally declared his death a hit-and-run. That eventual determination, however, never sat right with the grieving mother. In an interview with Savannah, Georgia-based ABC affiliate WJCL, she said her son would have never been walking alongside the highway to begin with – and certainly not in the middle of the night. Rumors swirled immediately upon the young man’s death. Again, a Murdaugh family coverup became popular belief. The case went cold until 2021, when SLED said they found evidence about Smith’s death when investigating Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s murders. Smith is remembered as a fierce activist for LGBTQ issues.
Curtis Edward Smith
Curtis Smith, 61, no relation to Stephen Smith, is a former client of Alex Murdaugh implicated in yet another alleged financial fraud scheme by the fallen-from-grace attorney. In September 2021, Alex Murdaugh was shot in the head on the side of the road. At the time, Griffin said his client had stopped to assess car trouble when a truck passed him by, doubled back, and then an assailant got out and fired a single shot. The wound was “superficial” authorities would later say. Days later, SLED says, Alex Murdaugh confessed to hiring Curtis Smith to shoot and kill him in an effort to secure a $10 million life insurance payout for Buster Murdaugh. Harpootlian later said his client, under the influence of opioids, was under the mistaken belief that the policy had a suicide clause that would have limited or prevented payments if he died by his own hands. Curtis Smith was subsequently charged with assisted suicide, assault and battery of a highly aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm, insurance fraud, and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud in connection with the failed plot. Described as Alex Murdaugh’s alleged “drug dealer” and “check casher,” the defense claims Curtis Smith failed a lie detector test when asked about the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.
Creighton Waters is a 24-plus-year veteran of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office. He served as the chief prosecutor for the state’s grand jury inquiry into Alex Murdaugh and is now the lead state attorney prosecuting the case. He has repeatedly sparred with Harpootlian and Griffin in pre-trial hearings, accusing the defense of misinterpreting cellphone evidence and excoriating the attorneys for trying to make the case about “Curtis Eddie Smith.” Oppositely, in motions, Harpootlian and Griffin have commended Waters for telling the truth about the methodology used by the state’s preferred blood spatter expert, Tom Bevel, on the hotly-disputed T-shirt the defendant was wearing the night of the murders. The defense alleges SLED and Bevel have fabricated key blood spatter evidence.
[images: Alex Murdaugh via Associated Press, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh via obituary; Buster Murdaugh via Maggie Murdaugh/Facebook; Mallory Beach via obituary; Stephen Smith via Standing for Stephen/Facebook; Gloria Satterfield via obituary; Curtis Smith via mugshot; Creighton Waters and courtroom wideshot via screengrab/Law&Crime Network]
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]