CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the weeks after Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son were killed, the prominent South Carolina lawyer displayed a pattern of strange behavior, his sister-in-law testified on Tuesday, never talking to her about trying to find the murderer and seeming not to fear that he could also be in danger.
The sister-in-law, Marian Proctor, provided the first close family testimony in the trial of Mr. Murdaugh, who is facing charges that he murdered his wife and son to conceal the fact that he had embezzled millions of dollars from clients and his law firm.
She said Mr. Murdaugh seemed more concerned with protecting his dead son’s reputation in the days after the murders than with finding out who had killed him.
“We never talked about finding the person who could have done it,” Ms. Proctor said. “It was just odd.”
Ms. Proctor testified that when she asked Mr. Murdaugh if he had any idea who could have murdered the victims — her younger sister, Maggie, and nephew, Paul Murdaugh — he made a cryptic comment about the mind-set of the killer.
Understand the ‘Murdaugh Murders’
A South Carolina mystery. The unraveling of the life of Alex Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, is at the center of a sprawling saga of mysterious deaths — including the killing of his wife and son — and allegations of multimillion-dollar swindles. Here’s what to know about the case:
Two murders and an indictment. The fatal shooting of Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh in 2021 rocked South Carolina’s Lowcountry region, where the Murdaugh family’s powerful legal dynasty originated. On July 14, the police charged Alex Murdaugh with killing his wife and son. Mr. Murdaugh pleaded not guilty.
The Murdaughs are powerful. The family has dominated the legal profession in a rural swath of the state for more than a century. For nearly 90 years, the post of chief prosecutor for a five-county region was held by a Murdaugh. And for even longer, the family’s law firm has been one of the state’s leading tort litigation firms.
There was a botched suicide plot. A day after he was forced out of his family’s law firm for misusing funds, Alex Murdaugh reported that he had been shot in the head. He soon admitted that he had actually asked a former client to kill him because he wanted to leave his older son, Buster, with a $10 million insurance payout. Mr. Murdaugh survived and was charged with fraud.
Other strange deaths revolve around the case. The case has brought new scrutiny to three other deaths in the region that may be tied to the family, including a young man found dead along a road in 2015 and a fatal boat crash in 2019.
Mr. Murdaugh has been accused of swindling millions. The lawyer was arrested on Oct. 14, 2021, and charged with stealing millions of dollars from a settlement intended for the children of a housekeeper who died at the family’s home in 2018 after falling on the front steps.
“He said that he did not know who it was, but he felt like whoever did it had thought about it for a long time,” Ms. Proctor said. “I just didn’t know what that meant.”
Ms. Proctor’s testimony was some of the most highly anticipated in the three-week-long trial, which has been watched and debated around the country. She said that, for about three months, she had largely accepted Mr. Murdaugh’s theory: that Paul Murdaugh had been targeted by someone angry over a 2019 boat crash, in which the younger Murdaugh had been charged with drunkenly crashing the family’s boat, killing a passenger. He was facing charges of boating under the influence at the time of his death.
But Ms. Proctor said she began to question that account about three months after the murders, when Mr. Murdaugh was fired by his law firm amid accusations that he had stolen millions of dollars over many years. Ms. Proctor, who was called to the witness stand by prosecutors, was not asked whether she thought Mr. Murdaugh was responsible, but she said that, looking back, his behavior in the aftermath of the murders had been strange.
”He said that his No. 1 goal was clearing Paul’s name” in the boat case, she said. “And I thought that was so strange because my No. 1 goal was to find out who killed my sister and Paul.”
The murders and the ensuing legal saga have drawn intense interest over the last year and a half, in part because of Mr. Murdaugh’s prominence in the region. Before being disbarred, he was a fourth-generation lawyer from a well-known family that controlled a regional prosecutor’s office and also ran a powerful law firm. As the killings went unsolved for more than a year before Mr. Murdaugh was charged, dozens of documentaries and podcasts were produced.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case on Wednesday after calling more than 50 witnesses, many of whom provided technical testimony about gunpowder residue, phone records and other evidence. By contrast, Ms. Proctor’s testimony was the first from a close relative of the victims, and she gave an emotional account of the days around the murders.
On June 7, 2021, Ms. Proctor said, Maggie Murdaugh called her to say that Mr. Murdaugh’s father, Randolph, appeared to be close to dying, and that Mr. Murdaugh had asked her to drive from the family’s beach house to their hunting estate so that they could visit him. Ms. Proctor cried as she recalled that she had encouraged Ms. Murdaugh to go. Later that night, Ms. Proctor’s husband got a phone call telling him that Maggie and Paul Murdaugh had been killed at the estate.
“I didn’t think it was true,” Ms. Proctor said. “I said, ‘There has to be a mistake.’ I said, ‘There’s got to be some explanation. It just can’t be them.’”
In the following days, she said, she grieved alongside Mr. Murdaugh and his family, and he stayed frequently at her parents’ home, as well as with other family members. Ms. Proctor said she later thought it was odd that Mr. Murdaugh had not seemed to share her family’s fear that someone could be hunting the Murdaughs.
“I was scared for Alex and Buster,” she said, speaking about Mr. Murdaugh’s older, surviving son. “I felt like they needed protection. I think everybody was afraid. And Alex didn’t seem to be afraid.”
On cross-examination, a lawyer for Mr. Murdaugh tried to chip away at the narrative that Mr. Murdaugh’s behavior had been strange. In response to questioning from the lawyer, Jim Griffin, Ms. Proctor conceded that Maggie Murdaugh had also been intent on clearing her son’s name in the boat crash, and she also said that Mr. Murdaugh and his son had seemed to have “a very good relationship.”
Jurors have heard extensive testimony in recent days about the millions of dollars that Mr. Murdaugh has been accused of stealing over the years. Ms. Proctor testified on Tuesday that Maggie Murdaugh was not involved in the family’s finances, suggesting that she most likely would not have known about any of her husband’s dealings.
“They had a comfortable life,” she said. “Money, it was never an issue for her, that she knew about.”