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Alex Murdaugh's murder trial begins in the shooting deaths of his wife and son

The murder trial of prominent South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh is now under way, with Murdaugh facing a possible life sentence if he's found guilty of killing his wife and son.
Grace Beahm Alford
The murder trial of prominent South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh is now under way, with Murdaugh facing a possible life sentence if he's found guilty of killing his wife and son.

Alex Murdaugh's murder trial is now under way in South Carolina, with the scion of a well-connected family facing charges that he shot and killed his wife and son in June of 2021.

Murdaugh, 54, is being tried at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., where the jury selection process began on Monday. Throngs of journalists and true-crime followers have descended on the small town for the trial.

The trial is taking place in what for decades was the Murdaugh family's seat of power, heading the prosecutor's office for the five-county Fourteenth Circuit. After Murdaugh's great-grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr., was elected to that post in 1920, the family controlled it for 86 years. In addition, the Murdaughs also ran a profitable private practice.

"Murdaugh will not be shackled during the trial, which begins Monday in Colleton County," as South Carolina Public Radio reports. "He faces life behind bars if convicted. Meantime, a portrait of his grandfather that hangs in the courtroom will be taken down."

Judge Clifton Newman is overseeing the trial, which prosecutors expected to end around Feb. 10.

In the early hours of jury selection, at least one potential juror was excused after the judge asked if anyone had been represented by Murdaugh's former law firm, sued by the firm, or had gone to any of the Murdaughs' parties, hunts or other gatherings. A man identified as juror 203 was excused after telling Newman that he couldn't be impartial, as Murdaugh had sued his father.

The investigation into the tragic deaths of Maggie Murdaugh and the couple's son Paul pulled the veil back on a privileged family, exposing dozens of financial crimes Alex is accused of. It also renewed interest in other recent deaths linked to the family that have not been fully explained.

Here's a brief recap of the shocking and sad events that led up to Murdaugh being charged with murder:

Feb. 24, 2019

The powerful Murdaugh family was thrust into headlines when Mallory Beach, 19, died after a late-night boating accident in South Carolina's Lowcountry with Paul Murdaugh, who was then 19, at its center.

Authorities said Murdaugh was highly intoxicated and steering a boat carrying five friends after an oyster roast when it struck a channel marker and the pilings of the R.C. Berkeley Bridge, running aground in Beaufort County, near Parris Island. No alcohol was served at the party, but the boat held a cooler with drinks, and Paul and a friend briefly visited a waterfront bar after the oyster roast.

After the crash, Paul and others were taken to a local hospital, where witnesses say Alex Murdaugh also appeared. The nurse in charge described the elder Murdaugh attempting to speak with every passenger from the boat, instructing at least one of them not to say anything to the authorities about the incident.

Mallory Beach's body was found a week later, about 5 miles from the bridge.

May 6, 2019

More than 70 days after the boating accident, Paul Murdaugh was arraigned and released on bond after a brief court appearance, pleading not guilty to felony charges that include boating under the influence and causing Beach's death.

A grand jury had indicted Murdaugh more than two weeks earlier, on April 18.

The local community immediately criticized the slow pace, calling it a sign of deference to the Murdaugh family that has raised generations of lawyers in the area, including prosecutors.

June 7, 2021

Alex Murdaugh called 911 a little after 10 p.m., saying he had just discovered the bodies of Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22. They died at the family's sprawling hunting property known as Moselle, in Islandton, part of Colleton County.

"My wife and child have been shot badly!" Alex Murdaugh told dispatchers. He reportedly told investigators that he had been visiting his own parents that night.

Two different weapons were used in the killings: an assault-style rifle for Maggie, and a shotgun for Paul. The coroner said they died between 9 and 9:30 p.m.

June 23, 2021

Reports emerged that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division would mount its own investigation into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, 19, whose body was found on a rural road miles from the Murdaughs' hunting estate.

Smith's death from a traumatic head injury was initially ruled an unsolved hit-and-run, but his mother has rejected that explanation. She said her son, who was openly gay, was killed after his car ran out of gas, forcing him to walk along the road and possibly exposing him to an attack.

Smith had attended high school with Alex Murdaugh's older son, Buster.

"The S.C. Highway Patrol case notes from 2015 include Buster Murdaugh's name nine times," according to Hilton Head newspaper The Island Packet.

Sept. 3, 2021

The law firm founded by Alex Murdaugh's family fired him after determining that he illegally siphoned millions of dollars from the firm and its clients.

Sept. 4, 2021

Alex Murdaugh made another call to 911, saying he'd been shot in the head while changing a tire on the side of the road. But state investigators say he orchestrated the incident, even providing a gun to Curtis Edward Smith, 61, to help him carry out an assisted suicide and insurance fraud.

Nine days later, Murdaugh admitted to the scheme, which he said was an attempt to get his son Buster a $10 million insurance payout.

Sept. 6, 2021

Alex Murdaugh resigned from his law firm and traveled to a Florida rehab center for opioid addiction.

Oct. 14, 2021

Alex Murdaugh was arrested on felony charges of obtaining property by false pretenses, accused of diverting millions of dollars away from the estate of Gloria Satterfield, his family's longtime housekeeper who died after falling down steps at the Moselle estate in February of 2018.

Murdaugh was taken into custody in Orlando, Fla., where he had gone to a rehab facility.

Prosecutors say Murdaugh convinced Satterfield's sons that he would help them recover some $2.7 million in an insurance settlement, but that Murdaugh and a longtime friend sent most of the money to themselves instead. The alleged crimes range from money laundering to fraud and breach of trust.

May 4, 2022

Prosecutors announced a state grand jury indicted Alex Murdaugh on more charges, including fraud and forgery, bringing the total to 79 state charges on 15 indictments. Attorney General Alan Wilson said Murdaugh ran schemes that defrauded victims of $8,492,888.31.

July 12, 2022

The South Carolina Supreme Court formally disbarred Murdaugh, noting the attorney's "admissions of unethical conduct in the context of his myriad criminal charges." Murdaugh, who had been suspended from practicing law since the previous September, did not contest the decision.

July 14, 2022

A grand jury in Colleton County indicted Murdaugh on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

"Over the last 13 months, SLED agents and our partners have worked day in and day out to build a case against the person responsible for the murders of Maggie and Paul and to exclude those who were not," said SLED Chief Mark Keel. He added, "Today is one more step in a long process for justice for Maggie and Paul."

July 20, 2022

Murdaugh pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife and son, as his defense team said Murdaugh "believes the killer or killers are still at large."

At the court hearing, prosecutors said the evidence is "substantial." But they didn't provide details about the case they've built, aside from saying that financial documents touch on a motive for the killings. Murdaugh was again denied bond, and the judge said he would consider a motion to limit the amount of evidence that can be publicly revealed.

Jan. 23, 2023

The murder trial for Murdaugh begins with jury selection.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.