The Murdaugh Murders trial gripped millions across the globe and has been of great interest to the public over the last two years.
Culminating in a six-week trial that produced a guilty verdict for the double murder of his wife, Margaret, and son, Paul, Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison in March 2023.
The twists and turns throughout the case captured the public interest in a way not often seen, with many observing the events via a Netflix series that saw its second season conclude in 2023.
Throughout the Murdaugh Murders trial, the use of electronically stored information (ESI) was prevalent and is a clear example of how digital evidence can have a bearing on justice.
In this blog post, we’ll recap the main events of the Murdaugh Murders trial and discuss how digital evidence played a key role in the case’s eventual outcome.
A timeline of events
For over a year, it remained a mystery who was responsible for the murders of the wife and son of South Carolina personal injury attorney Alex Murdaugh.
The unsolved shootings of wife Margaret, 52, and the couple’s son, Paul, 22, in June 2021 caused the seemingly perfect image of the South Carolina legal family to be called into question. Throughout the case, the prominence of ESI was paramount.
Before looking deeper into digital evidence's role in the Murdaugh Murders trial, let’s summarise the key events throughout the case.
24th February 2019
Paul Murdaugh, then 19, is alleged to have been boating under the influence when he crashed and killed 19-year-old woman Mallory Beach of South Carolina.
In April, Paul was charged with multiple felonies, including boating under the influence, in connection with the boat crash. He pleads not guilty to all charges but faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
7th June 2021
Murdaugh calls 911 at 10:07pm to say he has found the bodies of Margaret and Paul near their family dog kennels at their hunting lodge estate.
Authorities arrive at the scene. Lawyers would later provide an alibi to news outlets that Murdaugh had been with his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and her caregiver when the shootings occurred.
22nd June 2021
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announces it has opened an investigation into the death of a man named Stephen Smith, 19, after new evidence is gathered during the investigation into the Murdaugh double homicide.
4th September 2021
Murdaugh is injured in a roadside shooting in Hampton County, the authorities reveal. Murdaugh called 911 himself to inform authorities that he had been shot in the head.
His lawyer and friend Jim Griffin tells news outlets that Murdaugh pulled over due to a flat tire, during which time a pickup truck drove by, and a person opened fire from inside.
6th September 2021
Murdaugh announces that he has resigned from his law firm and will enter rehab. The following day, Murdaugh’s now-former law firm revealed that he left due to money misuse.
Just two days after the announcement, Murdaugh’s brother reveals he is “shocked” to learn of Alex’s “settling of money” as well as “drug addiction.” SLED also opens up an investigation over missing money from the law firm Murdaugh worked for.
14th September 2021
Authorities reveal new details of the roadside shooting. They alleged that Murdaugh arranged for a man to kill him so his older son, Buster, could collect $10 million from his life insurance policy.
The man, identified as 61-year-old Curtis Edward Smith, is arrested on assisted suicide, assault and battery of a high aggravated nature charges.
16th September 2021
Murdaugh surrenders to authorities after being charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report.
6th October 2021
Murdaugh’s former law firm file a lawsuit against him, claiming that he funneled stolen money from clients and the firm into a fake bank account over several years.
14th October 2021
Murdaugh is arrested and charged in connection with settlement funds from a housekeeper’s death.
He was taken into custody following his release from a Florida rehab facility and charged with two felony accounts of obtaining property by false pretences.
The charges stemmed from misappropriated funds following the death of Gloria Satterfield. Satterfield’s family claim Murdaugh stole more than $4 million in insurance settlements for her death.
15th October 2021
Murdaugh’s lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, claims health records showed that his client had drugs in his system when he was shot on 4th September.
Harpootlian claims medical records came back positive for opiates and that Murdaugh had a long-term Oxycontin opiate addiction.
13th December 2021
The state’s investigation into Murdaugh’s business dealings lead to a total of 27 counts in November, which increased to 48 separate charges in December, including several counts of computer crimes and money laundering.
A judge sets Murdaugh’s bond at $7 million.
21st January 2022
A grand jury indicts Murdaugh on 23 new charges, including breach of trust with fraudulent intent and computer crimes. He faces 71 charges involving the theft of around $8.5 million over 11 years.
28th June 2022
The state’s grand jury indicts Murdaugh and Smith on two conspiracy counts, including a narcotics count in relation to Oxycodone.
12th July 2022
Murdaugh is disbarred from practising law in the state following his ‘admitted reprehensible misconduct.’
14th July 2022
A grand jury indicts Murdaugh on two counts of murder for the fatal shootings of his wife and son.
20th July 2022
Murdaugh pleads not guilty to the murder charges at a bond hearing. The judge, Clifton Newman, denies bond.
16th December 2022
A grand jury indicts Murdaugh on nine counts of tax evasion. He is alleged to have failed to pay nearly $490,000 in state income taxes spanning over a decade and now faces over 100 criminal charges.
23rd January 2023
The double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh begins with jury selection in the Colleton County Courthouse in South Carolina.
2nd March 2023
A jury finds Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and son after deliberating for nearly three hours.
3rd March 2023
Murdaugh is sentenced to life in prison, with life sentences for each murder running consecutively.
The role of ESI in the guilty verdict
No matter the scale of the case, ESI is likely to play a role in the modern day. Due to the twists and turns throughout the Murdaugh Murders case, it was always a given that authorities would use ESI to piece together the timeline — and it was.
During initial data collection, information was collected from the devices of Murdaugh, Margaret and Paul.
Calls made to Margaret from Murdaugh were found on her phone but were missing from his device, suggesting an instance of spoliation. These gaps would have also appeared during the forensic collection of the phone as ‘deleted spaces’, which can be recovered via logical extraction.
Authorities also discovered that evidence stored inside Murdaugh’s car location device placed him along the road where Margaret’s phone was discarded.
Murdaugh’s alibi for the night that the shootings took place was also compromised by a Snapchat video recorded by his son, Paul, earlier that evening.
In a 58-second-long video recorded on his phone, which was played to the jury during the trial, you can clearly hear three different voices. The video was recorded with the intention of sending it to a close family friend, Rogan Gibson, as it showed his injured dog at the family kennel.
Minutes after the video was recorded, Paul was killed. During the trial, Gibson recalled speaking to Paul just before the video was taken and claimed in his testimony to have heard the voice of Alex Murdaugh over the phone. This would place Murdaugh at the scene of the murder just minutes before the double shooting occurred, calling his alibi into question.
With this piece of evidence, the way the video was collected is of paramount importance. Forensically collecting this data using best-practice procedures ensures the integrity of the video file, meaning it can’t be questioned during the trial. The collection method is just as important as the safe storage of the file and reviewing it for its relevance.
Throughout the development of this case, various instances of important ESI helped paint the picture of the timeline of events.
This speaks to the ever-developing data landscape lawyers worldwide must now be accustomed to while practising law. Multiple file types can lead to a conviction in a case, which was no different for Alex Murdaugh.
Having software capable of handling this data effectively and is reactive to new data is a surefire way to use data to your advantage in your search for justice.
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