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Alex Murdaugh denies killing his wife and son — but admits he lied about his alibi

Alex Murdaugh swears to tell the truth before taking the stand to testify in his trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., on Thursday, Feb. 23. The disgraced former lawyer admitted to lying about his alibi for the time leading up to the shooting deaths of his wife and son.
Joshua Boucher
/
AP
Alex Murdaugh swears to tell the truth before taking the stand to testify in his trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., on Thursday, Feb. 23. The disgraced former lawyer admitted to lying about his alibi for the time leading up to the shooting deaths of his wife and son.

Updated February 23, 2023 at 5:50 PM ET

In an extraordinary turn on the stand testifying on his own behalf in a double murder trial, Alex Murdaugh admitted that he lied to authorities about his alibi and said he stole money from his law firm.

But Murdaugh, the prominent South Carolina lawyer accused of carrying out an execution-style killing of his wife and son in June of 2021, said he did not kill his two family members: 52-year-old Maggie and 22-year-old Paul.

On the witness stand Thursday, the disbarred lawyer blamed his erratic behavior on paranoia caused by an opiate addiction. That led him to lie to investigators about being at the scene of the crime the day of the killings, he said.

"I lied about being down there. And I'm so sorry that I did," he said.

The prosecution will resume questioning on Friday at 9:30 a.m. ET.

Read on for a summary of Murdaugh's testimony Thursday:

'I did not shoot my wife or my son'

The first questions from defense attorney Jim Griffin focused on the 2021 murders, as Griffin repeatedly asked Murdaugh whether he had taken a rifle or a shotgun and shot his wife and son.

"No I did not," Murdaugh replied.

He repeated that reply when Griffin asked Murdaugh: Did you "blow your son's brains out?"

"I did not shoot my wife or my son any time. Ever," Murdaugh said.

Murdaugh admits he lied to police

Murdaugh admitted that he lied to investigators about his alibi — he has repeatedly said he didn't see his wife and son after they ate dinner at Moselle, their hunting estate. In his version of events, he said he napped in the house while Paul and Maggie visited the dog kennels.

But several witnesses have identified Alex Murdaugh's voice in a video taken by Paul at the kennel, minutes before investigators say the execution-style shooting began.

"I did lie to them," Murdaugh said of the account he told at least three law enforcement officials.

Asked by Griffin why he lied, Murdaugh blamed his opioid addiction.

"As my addiction evolved over time," Murdaugh said, he had incidents of great paranoia. He said he was nervous as a deputy sheriff swabbed his hands, and investigators asked him about his relationship with his wife and son, "coupled with my distrust of SLED" — the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

"On June 7, I wasn't thinking clearly," Murdaugh said. "I don't think I was capable of reason ... and I lied about being down there. And I'm so sorry that I did."

"I would never do anything intentionally to hurt either one of them," Murdaugh said as he openly wept.

Griffin asked if he lied repeatedly, and Murdaugh said, "Once I lied, I continued to lie, yes sir." He later added, "I had to keep lying."

Murdaugh gives his version of the night of the killings

Shortly after leaving the dog kennels, Murdaugh said, he drove over to see his mother. He spent around 20 minutes there, before returning to Moselle.

Murdaugh said his wife "wasn't planning to go with me" to see his mother, adding, "Maggie didn't really like to visit my mom."

When he later tried to call her, he said, he wasn't concerned when she didn't answer her phone.

Telemetry data from Murdaugh's car showed he stopped in his mother's driveway for a period of time — sparking theories that he might have used that time to stash evidence nearby. In court, Murdaugh said his phone had fallen between the seat and the console.

His driving speed has also attracted notice — the vehicle reached speeds up to 80 mph on the rural roads, far above the posted speed limits. When asked about that, Murdaugh said, "I was driving however I drive. Normal way that I drive."

Murdaugh returned to Moselle through its main gate. The lights were on in the house, he said, but Paul and Maggie were not there.

He then drove the Suburban to the kennels. Asked what he saw there, he wept and replied that he "saw what y'all seen pictures of" — a bloody crime scene, with his wife and son fatally wounded by rifle shots and shotgun blasts. It was "so bad," he said.

He said he jumped out of his car, then ran back and got his phone to call 911.

Parts of the 911 call were played in court. Murdaugh said his son was lying facedown, describing the terrible injuries to Paul's head. Murdaugh said he tried to check for a pulse and tried to turn Paul over.

As he moved him, Murdaugh said in court, Paul's phone "just popped out."

He said he put the phone "back on Paul-Paul," adding that he didn't see any messages on the phone.

Turning to Maggie, Alex said, he thought he touched her near her waist.

"I went back and forth between them, I know I did," he said.

A statement in that call — "I should've known" — has drawn much speculation. Asked about that in court, Murdaugh said Paul had gotten "the most vile threats" on social media and elsewhere. The threats were so "over the top," he added, that the family disregarded it.

Asked by the 911 dispatcher when he last spoke to his wife, Murdaugh replied, an "hour and a half, probably two hours ago." In court, he acknowledged that the last time he saw them was when he took a chicken away from a dog, in a video that was timestamped 8:44 p.m. It wasn't immediately clear which part of the 911 conversations — which went past 10 p.m. — included that statement.

Shelley Smith, the caregiver for Murdaugh's mother who saw him the night of the killings, has testified that she saw him carrying what might have been a blue tarp into his mother's house in the days afterward.

On the stand, Murdaugh said he couldn't recall bringing a tarp there — and he then sought to dismiss Smith's version of events, stating, "Shelley's got something in her mind about that."

Murdaugh also said he had nothing to do with a blue rain jacket that was found in a closet at his mother's house, and which tested positive for gunpowder residue, leading to speculation that it had been wrapped around a recently fired weapon.

Griffin later questioned Murdaugh closely about his movements after the killings, with Murdaugh saying that he stayed at several places, so he had clothes spread out among them.

Murdaugh says he took a shower at Moselle

Much of Murdaugh's testimony also seemed geared to humanize him to the jury, portraying him as a loving father and husband who had recently been to a University of South Carolina baseball game with his family, and who was coping with two ailing parents: his mother with Alzheimer's and his elderly father in a hospital.

Murdaugh spoke warmly about his wife and son, repeatedly calling them Mags and Paul-Paul as he recounted their last days together.

He also spoke about another aspect of the case that has raised many questions: his change of clothes, and the apparent use of a shower at Moselle.

Murdaugh said he and Paul had been driving around the property, checking on plantings for fields they used to hunt doves. He was sweaty, he said, from work — adding that he was heavier at the time, and saying that taking opioids also made him sweat more.

Murdaugh said he took a shower after getting back to the house, and that was why, he said, he changed into clean clothes and was reluctant to go down to the dog kennels with Paul and Maggie. He laid on the couch, he said, but then he opted to follow them, taking a golf cart down to the kennels.

There, Murdaugh said, the dogs were running around. He went into detail about how his dogs behaved — and he said one of the dogs, Bubba, had chased and caught a chicken. Murdaugh said he took the chicken out of the dog's mouth and placed it on top of a dog crate at the kennel — "and then I left."

He said he drove the golf cart "straight back to the house" and laid down on the couch again.

Murdaugh admits he stole money from his law firm

Murdaugh admitted that he stole money from his law firm by pocketing client funds for himself. The thefts started around 2010, according to prosecutor Creighton Waters.

"I'm not quite sure how I let myself get where I got," he said when asked why he began stealing. He added that he was in a tough spot financially after "spending so much money on [opiate] pills."

As of Thursday, Murdaugh said he has been opiate-free for 535 days. "I'm very proud of that," he said. The timeline would mean he started his sobriety after the killings.

Before becoming sober, he had visited a detox facility in Atlanta on three separate occasions for a seven-day inpatient program, he said. His first visit was in December 2017.

In September 2021, three months after the killings, his law firm concluded that Murdaugh had stolen the money and fired him.

The next day, Murdaugh was shot in the head but survived. He testified that he had asked a former client to kill him so that his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, could collect a $10 million life insurance payment.

The murder trial has taken many turns

It's the latest dramatic shift in a case that has drawn attention because of the Murdaughs' status as a wealthy and prominent family — and also because the 2021 killings were bookended by two other violent actions: a fatal boating accident involving Paul, and Alex's alleged attempt to have his cousin kill him in an apparent botched suicide.

The trial had initially been expected to conclude around Feb. 10, but it has sprawled far beyond that mark, as attorneys presented jurors with an array of evidence, including testimony about the millions of dollars Murdaugh is accused of stealing from his former law firm and its clients, his opioid addiction, and the roadside shooting that Murdaugh initially portrayed as an attempt on his life.

In a crucial ruling, Judge Clifton Newman decided in early February to allow prosecutors to present their account of Murdaugh's alleged financial misdeeds, saying the defense "opened the door" to that facet of the case by asking witnesses about Murdaugh's character — and whether they knew of any potential motive he might have to kill his own wife and son.

As they considered letting their client testify, Murdaugh's defense team has asked Newman about possible limits on what questions the prosecution could pose to him — hoping to restrict the topic to the financial allegations. But the judge has refused to set such limits on cross-examination.

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.