Once-prominent and now-disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to murdering his wife and son 13 months ago.
Murdaugh, 54, was indicted last week on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime in the shootings of his wife Maggie, 52, and their 22-year-old son, Paul.
The indictment wasn't read in court on Wednesday, and court papers made public to date don't indicate how police linked Murdaugh to the deaths after over a year of investigation. Nor do they contain any clues as to why a man who had no criminal history and was part of a wealthy, well-connected family that dominated the legal community in the tiny town of Hampton might have wanted to kill his own family members.
His defense lawyers and prosecutors agreed to keep the evidence secret amid media attention. His defense said Murdaugh can't afford to post any bond and wants a speedy trial because "he believes the killer or killers are still at large.”
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The prosecution said all evidence shows he was responsible for the fatal shootings.
“The evidence in this case is substantial and it all points back to Alex Murdaugh. There is forensic evidence as well as other evidence of his guilt of these murders,” said Creighton Waters, a deputy state attorney general.
“Our response to that is he’s wrong. And that’s why a jury will sit in that jury box,” defense lawyer Dick Harpootlian said.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman had previously denied Murdaugh bond after he was charged with stealing money from clients. A different judge later set bond at $7 million but Murdaugh was unable to pay and has remained in jail since October.
His lawyers have complained several times that the bond was set too high, and said that because of lawsuits and frozen assets Murdaugh couldn’t even afford to buy underwear from the jail store.
Authorities have been tight-lipped since the start of the investigation. Last year, they released the late-night 911 call in which Murdaugh reported finding the bodies of his wife and son outside by the dog kennels at the family’s Colleton County hunting estate in June 2021. The coroner said both victims had been shot multiple times. The indictments added a new detail: an allegation that Murdaugh killed his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun.
“It was very clear from day one that law enforcement and the Attorney General prematurely concluded that Alex was responsible for the murder of his wife and son," the defense wrote ahead of Wednesday's hearing. “But we know that Alex did not have any motive whatsoever to murder them.”
If convicted of murder, Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison without parole. Under state law, prosecutors could also choose to seek the death penalty because more than one person was killed.
The four new indictments connected to the slayings are being added to a pile of 80 other charges lodged against Murdaugh by investigators who have scrutinized every part of his life over the past year. No trial dates have been set for any of the cases.
Prosecutors said the once-prominent attorney stole more than $8 million in settlements and other money from clients, committed fraud and lied to police by trying to arrange his own death so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. Murdaugh was also charged last month with co-running a $2 million money laundering and drug ring.
The murder charges and other cases are being prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General's Office because of links Murdaugh has to the local 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office. The office's jurisdiction includes Colleton County and Hampton County, where Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were the elected prosecutors for 87 consecutive years.