When Our Words Betray Us
Boy was I wrong about that one…
As someone who spent about a week wondering who is this Alex Murdaugh (pronounced Murdock) person? Why is his murder trial all over the internet? I caught up with record speed, first reading everything I could find on the history of the Murdaughs and then binge watching the Netflix documentary that focused on dead younger son Paul, the tragic boating incident and subsequent cover-up.
Predictably, I became outraged. I don’t know why I still get outraged over rich, powerful people gaming the system, but this family sure took it to the extreme. Despite that, something struck me about Paul’s story. How as a teenager, he was a drunken disaster. How the cover-ups progressed over time. How the young people in his circle were so ill-equipped to deal with the wreckage around them. I was reminded of my time as a juvenile prosecutor—dealing with the rich kids who had easy access to alcohol and drugs and crossed the bridge from innocence to delinquency. I still get sad about it.
When I finally circled back to father Alex and learned that he was being tried for killing Paul and his wife Maggie, it was right at the time he was testifying in his own defense. By this point, however, I’d learned about the kid who was run over on a back road, the dead housekeeper and a whole host of other mindboggling incidents, none of which could be definitively tied to the Murdaugh family. Lots of rumors, though.
I couldn’t watch more than a couple minutes of his crocodile tears without my mind fast forwarding to predict the verdict.
It would be either not guilty or a hung jury.
Why? Because, in my experience as a prosecutor, as soon as a defendant testifies, it becomes a “he said – she said” scenario, the testimony is equalized and, well, the burden of proof is on the State (as it should be) and, well, because the defendant denies the crime, well, there you have it.
And all it takes is for one juror to feel sorry for him, or have a hidden bias against the prosecution and there’s your hung jury served on a silver platter. So if I had been betting, I would have taken a hung jury over any verdict at all.
Now, I had limited familiarity with the State’s case in the Murdaugh trial, but no murder weapon was found and, although prosecutors had done a great job of establishing Alex as a lying you-know-what, and he admitted to all sorts of crimes for which he was not on trial, I got hung up by the fact that they didn’t seem to establish what actually happened.
Again, the burden of proof kind of demands it.
I ran up against this in the biggest case of my career, where the defendant, the wife of a locally well-known NFL player struck and killed a person with her car. Because of the massive cover-up undertaken by the defendant and her legal team, we had to try to construct a story out of mostly circumstantial evidence. Not always easy, despite the law not preferring one type over the other.
In my case, the defendant testified, just as Alex Murdaugh did in his trial. In my case, the jury took almost three days to find her guilty. So, I must confess my total astonishment at the guilty verdicts returned in three hours for Mr. Murdaugh.
A former federal prosecutor I follow on Twitter commented: The jury must’ve have despised him.
I know I did. There’s a certain amount of arrogance that comes with money and power. The confidence that you will be believed because of who you are. On top of that, when you suffer from addiction, your sense of reality gets all screwed up. When you’ve been manipulating the system for as long as the Murdaugh family had, it’s no wonder the investigation was messed up.
We may never know how hard Murdaugh’s lawyer fought to keep his client off the stand. But people like him and the defendant in my case are conditioned to get their way. I’m not sure it would have gone any better for Murdaugh if he hadn’t testified, but he never would have had to admit all the other crimes he’d committed and all the other lies he’d told.
I remember being asked at a press conference after the verdicts in my case whether I believed it was wise for the defendant to have testified. In those days, I was very careful in my response. After all, my boss was standing right there. With a slight smile, I demurred.
“I’ll let you decide that one.”
Lying is hard. Reciting a story you know in your head to be false will only get you so far. Thinking the rest of the world will believe it is a risk that only the arrogant and delusional seem willing to take.
I grossly underestimated the jury’s ability to see through Murdaugh’s lies and for that I’m more than happy to admit my mistake.
Hi Debbie, I also thought it was going to be a hung jury. Yes there were crocodile tears, but I also saw Alex shaking and coming apart at the seams. Like MacBeth or any of Shakespeare's tragic figures I kept thinking of the word, dissolution. Ok, that's the literary part of me. The part of me that is drawn to history was totally enamored with the generational justice that was at play - a black judge presiding over a white privileged male who had it all and lost it all not only for himself but for the generations that preceded him and the ones to come after. Talk about justice from the grave (for the blacks who suffered at the hands of white justice in that state.) What a tragic story. What a reversal of fortunes! But, still, I feel for 'Buster.' Like Hamlet where does he go from here?
'There’s a certain amount of arrogance that comes with money and power. The confidence that you will be believed because of who you are.'
Best two sentences ever. Thank you for putting into words what we know to be true but couldn't think of why.