Engagement vs entertainment: Murdaugh draws mass attention

As the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh wraps, the heaps of public attention poured on the case’s many twists and turns are hardly waning

James Pollard
Thursday 02 March 2023 06:13 GMT
APTOPIX Murdaugh Killings
APTOPIX Murdaugh Killings

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As the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh wraps, the heaps of public attention poured on the case's many twists and turns are hardly waning.

Investigations stemming from the June 7, 2021 shooting deaths of the legal scion's wife and son revealed the prominent South Carolina lawyer stole millions of dollars from largely poor client's settlements and staged an attempt on his life to secure his surviving son a $12 million life insurance payout, according to authorities.

In the process, true crime enthusiasts, concerned onlookers and many others found the latest subject of their fascination in the yearslong unraveling of a mystery that jurors must now weigh.

Experts say the small town saga’s transformation into an international topic of intrigue highlights insights into the human psyche: People are wired to follow events that inform their perceptions of threat. And now, amid the commotion, some legal observers have found an important opportunity for education.

Coltan Scrivner, a researcher at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark, said a human desire to avoid getting duped has developed into a natural curiosity for signs of danger. Those cues, he said, are especially strong when the schemes involve high-status circles with powerful and successful people — things the Murdaugh case taps into.

“We put it in our rolodex of possible simulations of what could happen in a bad situation,” Scrivner said.

Amanda Vicary, a psychology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said the obsession with “true crime” is largely driven by women interested in its self-protective lessons. Many followers might subconsciously ask themselves what they need to look for in their own lives, she said.

Plus, the Murdaugh case’s many aspects -- mystery, forensics, family, finances -- appeal to a variety of interests.

“Most popular true crime stories might only have one or two of those elements,” Vicaray said. “It has a little something for everything going on right now.”

Stephanie Truesdale said the combination of a wealthy family's fall from grace and the many unexpected developments piqued her attention from the start. The teacher from upstate South Carolina has been particularly interested to see how the state's legal system treats “one of their own.”

For Truesdale, the attention manifested itself in a crafty way. She recently attempted a new crochet technique, and when searching for a subject to stitch, her mind inevitably turned to one of the trial’s key figures: Creighton Waters. In addition to the state’s lead prosecutor, Judge Clifton Newman and the family dog featured in a Snapchat video that pegged Murdaugh to the scene of the crime have also become homemade dolls on Truesdale’s mantle.

The dolls went viral on social media. But other forms of involvement have been received less pleasantly. Several trespassers were found last weekend taking selfies outside the feed room where Paul Murdaugh died, according to defense attorney Dick Harpootlian. He described it as the “most distasteful thing” he had ever seen.

“If people are really paying attention, they could really learn a lot from what’s going on right now, instead of just the more gruesome aspect of things,” Truesdale said.

Sarah Ford, the legal director for the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network, said she has found that people want to better understand legal processes in connection to the case. Ford and former state lawmaker Mandy Powers Norrell began hosting Twitter spaces to answer questions about the daily proceedings. Ford said they recently drew 600 people for an hour-long conversation on YouTube Live.

For Ford, the trial has spurred conversations that can change common misconceptions about crime. People might be shocked that someone could be accused of killing their wife and son. But, she said, the focus has raised awareness of issues like the prevalence of intimate partner violence.

While Ford recognized the importance of community engagement, she also had a word of caution: “You don’t want this to be something that takes over someone’s life as entertainment. Because it’s not. These are real people. These are real crimes. These have true, chilling, tragic effects for real people.”

It’s not the first time a South Carolina double murder trial has reverberated so widely. Susan Smith was sentenced to life in prison for the drowning deaths of her two infant children in 1994.

State Rep. Tommy Pope was the prosecutor in the case that drew hits on television programs led by personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. Pope said that the Smith trial coincided with the advent of reality television — possibly leading viewers to crave the “true reality” of such sensational cases.

“I think what people probably like about observing the Murdaugh case, for example, is the 'truth is stranger than fiction’ aspect of it. It’s like a soap opera but it’s really happening with real people," said Pope, adding, “This is not entertainment. It is a tragedy and lives were lost.”

He has also found an opportunity for public education. Pope said gavel-to-gavel coverage nowadays on Court TV — where he has served as an analyst during the Murdaugh trial — helps viewers reach their own conclusions and understand the legal system's “positives” and its “warts."

Streaming services have also responded to the interest in the mushrooming allegations of a powerful family’s wrongdoing. Discovery released a three-part series one year after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were first reported dead. Similarly, HBO Max launched its three-part documentary this past November. Last week, in the heat of the trial, Netflix premiered “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” for U.S. audiences — with the filmmakers telling Vanity Fair they unearthed additional crimes in the process.

A bevy of 100 other charges including financial crimes — for which Waters drew many admissions of guilt last week — have yet to be taken to court.

But for many South Carolinians, the interest comes from a strong desire to see long-awaited justice served to a well-connected man who has only recently acknowledged lies and abuses of power that long went unchecked.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday after the closing arguments in the five-week trial that began Jan. 25.

Bill Nettles, the former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said he wishes every defendant's liberty received the same attention and resources.

“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” he said. "But we should all strive for a world where the effort to take anybody’s liberty gets the same scrutiny as this case.”

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James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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