The Murdaugh Trial: Divorce, BLT’s & Justice
By Melissa Fuller Brown
Why would a local divorce litigator end up at the Colleton County Courthouse watching the last few days of the Murdaugh double murder trial in person?
Like many, I began following the Murdaugh family after the tragic death of Mallory Beach in the 2019 boat crash. I never met Alex, Maggie, Buster or Paul, but Randy Murdaugh, Alex’s older brother, and I were law school classmates. The bigger story is that four other law school classmates are or were involved professionally in other legal matters related to the Murdaughs.
Once the double murder trial began, I watched live online or recordings at night. Having taught lawyers at an Advanced Trial School, I quickly realized this trial provided much material to use when teaching practicing lawyers and law students.
The final week of trial, Kim Seeger, a good friend, and I decided to attend in person. We arrived Monday, Feb. 27, around noon. The line outside the courthouse was very long as seats for the general public were limited. At 4:30 p.m., we were allowed to enter. Given the late hour and because she was filming outside, I ended up in TV personality and talk show host Nancy Grace’s reserved spot behind Alex’s family.
While it was difficult to hear testimony sitting in the courtroom, Kim and I gained a new perspective and greater appreciation for the entire proceeding. Seeing the media, cameras, Judge Newman and the jury’s reactions to witness testimony was enlightening. Unlike Court TV views of Alex, his counsel and the state’s attorneys, we could only see the backs of their heads.
Having learned we must arrive early to obtain entry passes, Kim and I woke at the crack of dawn on Tuesday. We also brought chairs as we faced several hours before passes were handed out. Kim and I avoided being interviewed by news outlets. Nevertheless, it was hard to dodge the media who took photos and videos of the line from afar. However, Kim and I, admitted fans of Craig Melvin, took this selfie with the Columbia, S.C. native and Today Show anchor.
The author, Craig Melvin & Kim Seeger
Tuesday was ideal to attend in person. The State presented their rebuttal witnesses, and their testimony was riveting. Ronnie Crosby, Alex’s former law partner, helped release the tension in the courtroom when the renowned trial attorney informed Dick Harpootlian that he is actually a hog hunting expert. His testimony contradicted Alex’s earlier testimony that people only hunt hogs at night. He testified that he hunted hogs often with Paul, and he confirmed that owners of large tracts in that area routinely carry an AR-type weapon when riding their property. He and Paul would shoot wild hogs during the day because the hogs are so destructive to the land. On Ronnie’s property alone, they have killed more than 1,000 hogs.
T.C. Smalls, the retired sheriff of Hampton County, dropped a bomb shell. He denied ever giving Alex, or any solicitor, permission to install blue lights in a personal vehicle contrary to Alex’s testimony.
Mark Ball was another surprise. Previously, Mark testified on Alex’s behalf. On rebuttal, he became the State’s witness. Mark, another of Alex’s former law partners, confirmed Ronnie’s testimony that hogs are shot during the day as well as night. Mark also proudly shared he shot five hogs at 4:40 p.m. the prior week.
The rock star rebuttal witness was Dr. Kenney Kinsey, the Orangeburg County deputy sheriff and the state’s crime scene expert. Dr. Kinsey’s dissection of the defense team’s crime scene expert was credible and believable. Dr. Kinsey also testified with charm and eloquence. Watching the jurors, Dr. Kinsey’s testimony clearly resonated with them. It was also interesting to observe this: Whenever Dr. Kinsey walked outside the courthouse, people would literally cheer and clap for him.
I watched Creighton Water’s closing argument from the comfort of my little farm cabin, located less than 17 miles from the courthouse. However, the next day, I arose at 3 a.m. to obtain a seat inside, not wanting to miss the final day.
Before Jim Griffin’s closing argument, a fifth juror problem arose. Juror 785, the employee who worked at the monkey farm in Yemassee, was caught discussing the trial with third parties in violation of Judge Newman’s instructions. Thus, the judge dismissed her from the panel over defense’s objection. Now, only one alternate remained. (Of note, FITS News reported 3/16/2023 that the Yemassee chief of police, Greg Alexander, is under investigation by the state grand jury. John Marvin testified at length about the close friendship between Alexander and the Murdaughs.)
Before the juror left, Judge Newman asked if she needed to collect any personal items. She responded, “Yes, a dozen eggs, my purse and a bottle of water.” Everyone seemed a bit stunned, and once the juror was gone, even Judge Newman commented, “We’ve had a lot of interesting things and now — a dozen eggs.”
After lunch, John Meadors, the son of a Methodist bishop, gave the state’s reply argument. Sounding more like a Baptist minister, John tied the facts together using two themes: Be real and choose wisely.
He impressed upon the jurors to “always be real,” pointing out that unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, Alex Murdaugh was incapable of being real. John also argued that throughout Alex’s career, he failed to choose wisely. He stole from his clients, his partners and his family. Instead of using his greatest power, the power to choose, Alex chose unwisely and abused his weaker powers of privilege, position and greed.
Once the jury began deliberating, I remained in Walterboro to grab dinner. Even though I was only an observer without a role in the trial, I was exhausted and felt a number of emotions. I still cannot grasp how a lawyer could stoop to the depths of such greed and deceit as Alex. And I, like so many other hard-working South Carolina lawyers, feel that Alex’s behavior tarnished our profession. I also cannot get over how one lawyer could steal more than $12 million from his law firm throughout more than a 10-year period without anyone else noticing. My colleagues and I know never to take clients’ money, and sometimes, it seems we live in fear of committing some small mathematical error. How did Alex get away with such treachery for so long without his partners’ knowledge?
On the other hand, one of the best aspects of attending the trial in person was meeting so many wonderful people from Walterboro and surrounding counties. The residents’
friendly welcome was remarkable. Thank you to all who live in Walterboro for your gracious hospitality!
Another fun fact is that my good friend, Margie Pizarro, introduced me to Judge Newman years ago. I have been blessed by knowing such a gifted jurist who is also an amazing person. I returned from lunch one afternoon and saw Judge Newman, Mrs. Newman, Gabby Williams, his law clerk, and his security detail leaving a restaurant. I whipped across the street in my car, pulled up to the curb and rolled down my window, saying, “Hi, Judge Newman, do you remember me? I am Melissa Brown, Margie Pizarro’s friend.” He started laughing at me responding jokingly in the cutest Southern drawl, “Aren’t you the famous divorce lawyer from Charleston?” That made me smile.
I discovered one of my new favorite Walterboro spots, Hiott Drugs. This charming drug store has a lunch counter with delicious sandwiches. I enjoyed a BLT, chips and a Diet Coke. Sitting there with two of my new Hampton County friends who related many stories and explained to me the many connections between all the “players” that the media has not reported was fascinating. For their generosity, I offered to buy their lunches. Despite the sign stating that there was a price increase, our total tab was $17.25. Goodness knows how little my BLT cost before the price increased to $3.85! Whenever in Walterboro, be sure to grab lunch here!
Hiott Drugs lunch counter menu
Around 6:53 pm that night, a text from a strange number arrived: “Hey this is Joe from X’s phone … verdict is in.” It was my new friend, Joe Catron, a young law student I met at court. He was already in the courtroom. Since none of us were allowed to bring phones into the courtroom, he convinced one of the clerks to text me so I would not miss this important moment. Despite wearing high heels, I sprinted to the courthouse.
The energy, tension, worry and excitement were evident in the courtroom as the jury returned to their box. When the Clerk of Court Rebecca “Becky” Hill, took the signed verdict from the forewoman, it was so quiet, I am not sure anyone was even breathing. And, as the world knows, she read: “Guilty on all four counts.”
Law enforcement turned Alex around to cuff his hands and feet. The entire gallery could see his face. I was so close to him that I could see him mouth, “I love you” to Buster. For the first time, I saw fear in his eyes yet no tears.
On sentencing day, I woke early and hurried to Walterboro. I had no idea that I would be told to sit in the front row. Goodness knows, I never expected to share the television screen with Alex especially the day his sentence was delivered on television around the world.
Throughout that final week of trial, the Rev. Raymond Johnson, pastor, Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, in Marion, S.C., held prayer sessions, and he carried a sign that said, “Justice is Coming.”
Following sentencing, the Rev. Johnson’s sign changed appropriately to “Justice.” I enjoyed getting to know the Rev. Johnson. This photo was taken of us right after Alex was sentenced to two consecutive terms for the rest of his natural life.
The author with the Reverend Raymond Johnson
Melissa Fuller Brown is a local Charleston divorce lawyer, lover of guns/boats/dogs/the Lowcountry, and hopeful consultant for upcoming movies, books and other series about the Murdaughs.