HURT/Southern Gothic murder
Alex Murdaugh’s devouring testimony in his double murder trial last week brought to mind the opening line of A.J. Liebling’s charitably reported and beautifully written biography of Huey Long, Louisiana’s famous machine governor.
“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly.”
Watching Mr. Murdaugh testify on television was like looking the wrong way through a telescope into a faraway place, locked in a different time.
“I didn’t shoot my wife or my son. Anytime. Ever,” he declared in a long, quavering Southern drawl. His black eyes set in a broad, pale face narrowed as he denied the crime for which he has been charged.
But for the most part, Mr. Murdaugh spoke in an easy, languid manner as he wove a tangled web of lies and thievery and one staged suicide.
For two days, he talked about “keelin’ hahgs” during nighttime hunts with his sons and open gun rooms in the house and planted dove fields and the family’s flock of guineas, which, he explained, were best described as “guard birds” that raise a “racket” whenever unfamiliar people come poking around.
Seated in the witness box before the jury, Mr. Murdaugh’s gray suit fit his jail-starved frame like a bulky refrigerator box. The thermostat on the courtroom wall behind him read 66 degrees.
They say lawyers make the worst witnesses. But Mr. Murdaugh is no ordinary lawyer. He is more like Brer Rabbit if somebody gave Brer Rabbit a law degree. And the witness box is his briar patch.
“She was standing in the spot where she could see in between the chicken coop and the storage room of the kennels, where the dogs were back up in those planted pines behind the kennels to the left of the chicken coop.”
If only William Faulkner could have put words to paper so fast.
The simplest questions become canvases for Mr. Murdaugh to paint whatever picture he feels like — anything except the clear picture the prosecutor is seeking.
“What did you do after that?” the prosecutor asked.
“I went back to the house.”
“No,” the prosecutor pressed. “I mean, did you — you pulled up, you get out of the, uh, the golf cart?”
“No,” Mr. Murdaugh said plainly. “When I pulled up, I stayed on the golf cart.”
“Stayed on the golf cart? How long did you stay on the golf cart?”
“However long I was down there.”
“The entire time?” the prosecutor inquired.
“No. I got off to take the chicken from Bubba.”
“All right. So, how long were you down there before you took the chicken off of Bubba?”
“Very short time.”
Mr. Murdaugh talks like kudzu.
By the time he finishes answering questions, you have no idea what to think. You don’t even know if his name is Alex or Alec. Murdaw or Murdock? And is it Paw Paw or Paul? Maggie or Mags?
For the world outside rural Hampton County, South Carolina, Mr. Murdaugh’s testimony is unconvincing. But the world of experts outside rural Hampton County, South Carolina, do not sit on that jury.
We voyeurs from far away cannot help but be mesmerized by the un-self-conscious manner in which he unspools the freakish and macabre details of his twisted life in melodic Southern cadences.
“I don’t know why I tried to turn him over. I mean, my boy’s laying face down. He’s done the way he’s done. His head was the way his head was. I could see his brain laying on the sidewalk. I didn’t know what to do.”
About the only thing everyone in that courtroom agrees on is that Mr. Murdaugh is an extravagant liar and an accomplished thief. Still disputed is whether he shot his wife and youngest son to death down at the dog kennels amid the planted pines where the guineas make a racket when strangers show up.
“Everything about me not going to the kennel was a lie,” Mr. Murdaugh admitted in open court.
“You’re able to just do that so easily and so convincingly and so naturally,” the prosecutor poked.
“That’s not for me to judge,” Mr. Murdaugh responded amiably.
“That’s true,” the prosecutor replied.
Charles Hurt is the opinion editor at The Washington Times.