I can’t speak for those of y’all north of the Mason-Dixon line, but down south, the Alex Murdaugh case has been the trial of the century—captivating news feeds, podcasts, and common conversation for months.
As a quick refresher, Alex Murdaugh is a wealthy white male attorney whose family had the southeast corner of South Carolina’s legal system by the throat for generations. His wife and son were found murdered at one of the family’s properties in 2021.
According to BBC News, “Between 1920 and 2006, three generations of Murdaugh men presided as the chief prosecutor for the state’s Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, the longest such stretch of family control in United States history.”
So in layman’s terms, that means the family held the District Attorney position in their area for decades.
Prosecutors have immense power. Too much power, in fact. They run races that are rarely even contested in most districts, and while in power these people decide what cases move forward, which ones disappear, what charges are brought, how long of a sentence to seek, and ultimately, how good of a case the state brings against a defendant. They have virtually no oversight and get to unilaterally make these decisions, and needless to say, corruption often abounds.
This is important to know, because the fact this family held the office for so long has a lot to do with what happened throughout the case.
Alex initially claimed he was nowhere near the family’s hunting property the evening of the crime. But as law enforcement (and particularly as social media) began to poke around his story it quickly became apparent there was much lurking beneath the muddy waters of the Lowcountry.
It came to light that there were a string of suspicious deaths in the family’s history. One of those deaths in particular ended up being financially linked to Alex Murdaugh’s private legal practice and it soon became apparent that he had been embezzling millions of dollars. Murdaugh was then involved in a very odd incident where he claimed to be changing a tire on the side of a rural roadway when a random person shot him in the head. Alex was indeed shot in the head but it turned out to be a botched suicide for hire plot.
Ultimately, a slew of evidence ended up linking Alex to the murders of his wife and son afterall, and he was recently convicted and given a life sentence. Worth noting, a life sentence is not life without parole—meaning Alex could foreseeably not spend the rest of his life in prison.
Given the circumstances of the case, this is actually a very light sentence and it speaks to larger problems in our justice system—namely, an allocation of “justice” that has little to do with the nature of crimes and everything to do with the socioeconomic, race, and geographical location of the victim.
In a statement to Alex at sentencing, the judge in the case actually named this in a rare showing of transparency.
“This has been perhaps one of the most troubling cases not just for me as a judge, for the state, for the defense team, but for all of the citizens in this community, all the citizens in this state, as we have seen based on the media coverage throughout the nation,” Judge Clifton Newman said.
“You have a wife who has been killed, murdered. A son savagely murdered. A lawyer, a person from the respected family who has controlled justice in this community for over a century, a person whose grandfather’s portrait hangs at the back of the courthouse that I had to have ordered removed in order to ensure that a fair trial was had by both the state and the defense,” Newman continued.
“This case qualifies under our death penalty statute based on the statutory aggravating circumstances of two or more people being murdered by the defendant by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct. I don’t question at all the decision of the state not to pursue the death penalty. But as I sit here in this courtroom and look around at the many portraits of judges and other court officials and reflect on the fact that over the past century, your family, including you, have been prosecuting people here in this courtroom and many have received the death penalty, probably for lesser conduct.”
The death penalty is rarely used against wealthy people. It’s also only used in 2% or less of counties most years. And as a percentage of the homicides they commit, white people are far less likely to receive such a harsh sentence on top of all of this.
Given these factors, it is of little surprise that Murdaugh received such a light sentence—especially given the fact that his family has had such prominence in the prosecutor’s office for so many years. It’s also telling why so many of the suspicious deaths in the Murdaugh family’s history were swept under the rug for so long.
If this tells you anything at all, it should be that prosecutor’s offices need far more accountability. And the death penalty should be abolished—for numerous reasons, but not least among them, the arbitrariness in which it is applied where wealthy, connected people get far less harsh punishments for the same crime.