Alex Murdaugh’s legal troubles are far from over

Alex Murdaugh filed a motion Thursday to appeal his double murder convictions after he was sentenced to two life sentences in the fatal shootings of his wife and younger son. But, whether or not his appeal is granted, that guilty verdict does not signal the end of his legal troubles, as he will still be made to answer for the 99 alleged financial crimes in which he has yet to be tried.

Throughout his two days of testimony, one thing became painfully clear: Murdaugh was a self-professed liar who not only lied for more than 20 months about not being present at the scene of the crime, but he also lied to several clients and his law firm when he stole millions of dollars from them.

Murdaugh’s lack of visible remorse while on the witness stand and the exposure of his lies in court helped seal his fate.

At first blush, it appeared that a jury of his peers spent approximately three hours to find him guilty of the brutal murders of his wife, Margaret, and son Paul. The speed with which the jury returned its verdict was shocking to many; several people expected it to take much longer as the trial itself had already lasted for weeks and the charges were so serious. But an interview with one of the jurors reveals that the jury took even less time than that — more like one hour for the 12 jurors to reach an unanimous guilty verdict.

According to juror Craig Moyer, Murdaugh’s lack of visible remorse while on the witness stand and the exposure of his lies in court helped seal his fate. In his words, Murdaugh was “A good liar. Not good enough.” Another juror spoke out after the trial and said that Murdaugh’s testimony while on the stand showed how easily he could lie “so effortlessly.” Other jurors told the media they felt that Murdaugh knew “how to turn it on and turn it off” and that he did not appear to be really crying when testifying. In other words, all of the interviewed jurors resoundingly shared the view that Murdaugh taking the stand and admitting that he repeatedly lied persuaded them of his guilt. 

According to media reports, Murdaugh decided to testify against his attorneys’ advice. He was (until he was disbarred last year) a trial lawyer who knew the ins and outs of both civil and criminal law, so he was already fully aware of the import of taking the stand. 

March 3, 202300:57

The trial judge, Clifton Newman, even reminded Murdaugh before he took the stand that the Fifth Amendment gave him the constitutional right not to testify. But Murdaugh testified anyway. It may have been an act of hubris or stupidity, or maybe a combination of both. Or, it could have been an act of desperation on his part after his lawyers, during the cross-examination of witnesses put on by the prosecution, opened the door to evidence and testimony about his alleged financial crimes.

Murdaugh is facing 19 indictments setting forth 99 charges in crimes running the gamut from money laundering, attempted tax evasion and fraud to embezzlement and forgery. The total amount of money at issue exceeds $8.7 million. If convicted of these crimes, the sentence could be more than 700 years in prison. The indictments allege that Murdaugh, spanning a decade, defrauded his clients, his law firm partners and even his own family members, pocketing the money to prop up what was basically a Ponzi scheme. 

Initially, the court was not going to permit the prosecution to go into the issue of his alleged financial crimes at the murder trial. And rightfully so. The rules of evidence usually do not permit jurors to hear about a defendant’s other charged crimes or such allegations out of the fear that they may decide that a defendant is guilty simply because he’s been accused of committing other crimes. These rules don’t allow evidence about someone’s “bad character” or “bad acts” to be admitted. There’s also a rule of evidence that would prohibit “bad character” or “bad acts” evidence from being presented to a jury as it would be “more prejudicial than probative,” meaning that other evidence would do more harm to the defendant than provide a benefit to the jury, so it should not be presented. These rules of evidence, as all of the rules, are strictly adhered to unless certain circumstances arise during a trial. 

As such, Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes were initially a no-go and the prosecution put on its case-in-chief without putting forth any evidence of those other offenses. However, that scenario dramatically changed after two prosecution witnesses, Rogan Gibson and Will Loving, both testified that they heard Murdaugh’s voice on the video that Paul had recorded on his phone just minutes before he and his mother were murdered.

In characterizing Murdaugh as a “loving father, provider, financial securer, things of that nature,” his defense counsel opened the door for the prosecution to question witnesses about his financial situation as a motive to kill his wife and son.

On redirect examination, the prosecution asked questions centered on Murdaugh’s financial condition, his debts and his financial exposure for the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Mallory Beach, the young woman killed in a 2019 boating accident caused by Paul. Of note, the prosecution asked Loving if he knew that on the morning of the murders, Murdaugh had been confronted at his law firm about $792,000 in missing funds. Of course, the defense objected, but those objections were overruled by the court.

In terms of why Newman would allow that line of questioning by the prosecution if evidence of Murdaugh’s financial crimes was not supposed to be heard by the jury, the judge ruled, referring to the questioning in the cross-examination by Murdaugh’s defense counsel Jim Griffin, that “the witness was asked if he could think of any reason possible Mr. Murdaugh would commit the crimes he was accused of committing. That turned cross-examination of the witness from dealing with specific issues in the case to having to testify as a character witness for Mr. Murdaugh.”

Newman also ruled that in characterizing Murdaugh as a “loving father, provider, financial securer, things of that nature,” his defense counsel opened the door for the prosecution to question witnesses about his financial situation as a motive to kill his wife and son.

By the time the defense got to its case-in-chief, the unanswered questions about Murdaugh’s financial crimes and Paul’s crime scene video loomed large in that courtroom. And there was really only one person who could adequately address and answer those questions: Murdaugh. So when he took the stand, he had to immediately come clean about the crime scene video with his voice on it. And then he kept on confessing before the jury about the multitude of lies he has told over his life, from the professional lies while he stole millions of dollars in legal funds to the personal lies he told to hide and enable his drug addiction. Because his lawyers had opened the door to that line of questioning about his financial crimes, Murdaugh had to provide a satisfactory explanation to the jury as to how he could be such an accomplished liar (but that the jurors could still believe him when it came to the double murders, as he said).  In the end, and as I noted previously, Murdaugh turning the witness stand into a de facto confessional/confession booth made it easier for the jury to quickly convict him. 

Murdaugh’s defense team has already declared that they will appeal the conviction and the sentence. But, one of the considerations the appellate court will keep in mind is what strategic decisions were made by the defense during the course of the jury trial. And if his lawyers, either intentionally or inadvertently, created the situation that led to his conviction, it’ll make the appeals court’s job much easier to do. 

The biggest fallout for Murdaugh from testifying in his own defense during the double murder trial is the fact his testimony can be used against him in any future trials. While on the stand, he admitted to stealing from more than 18 clients. That testimony was provided under oath, as he looked the jurors in the eyes to convince them that he never murdered his wife and son. Consider the following: if the appeals court were to find some kind of error occurred in his double murder trial and his conviction gets reversed, he still faces 99 counts of financial crimes and with his admissions on the stand, the prosecution’s case has already been made for them. 

Murdaugh not only testified his way into a life sentence, he very well may have just testified himself into dozens of years of prison for stealing from his clients, business partners and family.