Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Money, power and so much death. The saga of the Murdaugh family is still unfolding, and it’s no wonder so many Americans are gripped by it.
This week, lawyer Alex Murdaugh turned himself in to the Hampton County Law Enforcement Center in South Carolina after he admitted that he asked a former client to kill him during a fake car breakdown so Murdaugh’s oldest son, Buster, could get the insurance payout, police said.
Murdaugh decided to end his life, his attorney Dick Harpootlian told NBC’s “Today Show,” but he believed his life insurance policy had a suicide exclusion and the scheme “was an attempt on his part to do something to protect” his only living son.
The suicide-for-hire plot failed; Murdaugh survived and called 911 after suffering what the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) described as a “superficial gunshot wound to the head.”
Now Murdaugh faces charges of insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report, according to a statement from SLED, while the man he asked to kill him has been charged with assisted suicide, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm, insurance fraud and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.
But that’s not even the half of it.
In June, Murdaugh’s 52-year-old wife Margaret and his 22-year-old son Paul were found shot dead on the family’s property in a double homicide that has still not been solved. At the time of his death, Paul had been awaiting trial for his alleged role in a boat accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in 2019 (He had been indicted by a Beaufort County grand jury on three counts of boating under the influence).
Before that, the family’s long-time housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, died at the Murdaugh home in what was described as a “trip and fall accident” in 2018, according to attorney Eric Bland, who is representing her estate. An autopsy was never conducted and her cause of death was listed as “natural,” according to the Hampton County coroner. Now a criminal investigation has been opened into Satterfield’s death based on new information gathered during other investigations involving Alex Murdaugh and a request from the county coroner highlighting inconsistencies in the ruling of her cause of death, said SLED.
And before that, a teenager named Stephen Smith was found dead on a road several miles from the Murdaugh home with devastating but baffling injuries in 2015. His death was ruled a hit-and-run at the time. And while authorities have not said there is a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family, SLED said it was reopening an investigation into the killing based on information gathered while investigating the double homicide of Margaret and Paul Murdaugh.
To complicate matters, Murdaugh resigned from his law firm the day before his failed suicide-for-hire plot following allegations he had misappropriated funds. (Murdaugh’s lawyer told the New York Times his client had expressed his “regret and sorrow”) and Murdaugh later released a statement saying he was entering rehab.
To be clear, no one has been arrested for any of these deaths, and no one has been found guilty of any of the alleged crimes. There is much the public still doesn’t know, although this hasn’t prevented a great many people from theorizing and pontificating.
The story is a fascinating one on its face. But it’s made all the more captivating because of who the Murdaughs are: a powerful family that ran a prosecutor’s office in South Carolina for generations, and whose reach and influence have long been vast and deep.
Did any of that influence figure into previous cases related to the family?
How, exactly, did Alex Murdaugh – a personal injury lawyer who surely knew how to read contracts and understand insurance rules – misunderstand his own life insurance policy rules such that he believed his own suicide would disqualify his son from receiving a payout?
And how did the man Murdaugh asked to kill him miss so badly? Murdaugh appeared in court on Thursday without any visible head wounds or bandages. If his injuries were minor, and he set the whole thing up solely to get life insurance money for his child, why did he call 911 and report that he had been shot while changing a flat tire?
America remains enthralled with true crime. Millions of people devour based-on-a-true-story police procedurals, download endless murder podcasts, and play online sleuth on Reddit forums and Facebook pages. The stories that seem to fascinate us most aren’t the ones about commonplace crimes, or even the crimes we are most likely to be victimized by, but the ones that are aberrant: those that involve the powerful, wealthy or beautiful; those that are layered with mystery, deceit and too-convenient coincidences.
Some of our true crime obsession is no doubt about an impulse to face our most primal fear – the fear of no longer existing – in the safer context of the highly unusual murders we are unlikely to ever experience. And some of it likely comes from seeking even a false sense of control. If we can imagine all of the worst things happening, perhaps we can be better prepared for them.
The Murdaugh saga triggers something different: morbid curiosity to be sure, and a simple need to discern the truth out of a complicated set of facts. But there’s also a desire to see some moral come out of this sordid story.
Depending on where you stand, the interest in this story is either pure rubbernecking or a pure wish to see justice done for Mallory Beach, Stephen Smith, Gloria Satterfield, and Margaret and Paul Murdaugh; or at the very least, to figure out who, if anyone, is responsible for each death. If it’s truly the latter, then followers of the Murdaugh story should buckle up for a long ride, because the thorough investigations and fair trials that beget real justice take time.
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Justice also requires real accountability, including of the police, prosecutors, and townspeople who lived and worked alongside members of the Murdaugh family and likely felt the long reach of their power. And that is one area where the true-crime obsessives following this case should keep their focus: Not on digging up the truth themselves through theory and conjecture, but on making sure that the people vested with that power do their jobs.