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Questions abound in SC Murdaugh killing. Among them: Should prosecutor step aside?

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On June 8, 2021, investigators huddle on the property along Moselle Road in rural Colleton County where Paul Murdaugh, 22, and his mother, Margaret, 52, were found shot the night of June 7. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Several days after two members of a prominent Hampton County family were fatally shot, questions about what happened still vastly outnumber answers.

Police have said almost nothing about their investigation into the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. They have stressed that the public is not at risk, an assertion they have not explained even as no arrests have been made.

No suspects have been named, no motive offered, and virtually no records have been released about the night of June 7, when a high-powered lawyer reportedly found his wife and son dead at their hunting lodge in rural Colleton County.

Theories and speculation have festered in the void of firm information, inflamed by the Murdaughs’ reputation as powerful forces in the Lowcountry and the state’s legal profession.

And for the second time in 2½ years, the family’s prominence in Lowcountry legal circles poses ethical questions for the judicial system it built its name in. Among them: What should local prosecutors do when tragedy befalls one of their own?

For the better part of a century, nearly every criminal case in the southern tip of the state passed through a prosecutor’s office run by a Murdaugh. The hold on power ran from 1920 to 2005 with only a brief gap in the 1950s when Buster Murdaugh was accused of helping moonshiners evade the law.

The courts also created a pathway for the Murdaughs to accumulate considerable wealth: The family’s century-old firm has extracted such large payouts from its litigation that the Hampton County courthouse has a national reputation as a hostile venue for big corporations. The family owns more than 1,700 acres of woodlands and swamps in Colleton and Hampton counties, including a hunting lodge called Moselle, where the double homicide took place. 

The firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, was founded in 1910 by Randolph Murdaugh, the first in the family's line of prosecutors, who was solicitor until he was killed when a freight train hit his car. The firm now boasts a roster of 17 attorneys and a dozen multimillion dollar payouts from companies like Ford, Nissan and CSX. It long held a reputation for doing battle with railroads.

Alex Murdaugh, Maggie’s husband and Paul’s father, works part time for the 14th Circuit solicitor’s office, which was once run by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. After retiring from public office, his father, former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, continued to work as a “prosecutorial consultant,” according to his biography on the law firm’s website. The elder Murdaugh died on June 10; his death was not related to the shooting.

Despite those ties, 14th Circuit solicitor Duffie Stone’s office is still involved with the investigation. The state Attorney General’s Office confirmed that Stone had not handed off the case as of June 10.

The solicitor’s office did not respond to questions about whether it planned to remove itself from the case.

By comparison, when Paul Murdaugh was involved in a fatal boating accident in February 2019, records indicate that Stone’s office notified the attorney general of its conflict the next day.

It sent a letter disclosing the conflict even before search teams located the body of the 19-year-old woman who died in the crash, and weeks before Paul Murdaugh was formally charged with a crime in the case. At the time of the June 7 shootings, he was facing one count of boating under the influence causing death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury.

In a signal of how deep the family’s ties to the judiciary run, when a civil lawsuit related to the boat crash was filed in Hampton County, the judge it was assigned to recused himself, passing the case to another jurist, who in turn recused herself. The state Supreme Court eventually gave it to a judge from York County, on the other end of the state.

The family’s connection to the solicitor’s office doesn’t cross ethical lines at this point in the investigation, according to former University of South Carolina law dean Robert Wilcox, who teaches legal ethics.

Without arrests and a clear suspect, the prosecutor’s role in the case is limited for now. The solicitor’s office should primarily be working in an advisory role, making sure that law enforcement handles the case constitutionally and avoids missteps that could taint evidence or testimony.

When the solicitor stepped aside from the investigation into Paul Murdaugh’s boat crash, for instance, the Attorney General’s Office gave legal advice to officers with the Department of Natural Resources, and its staff ultimately handled the prosecution.

But conflicts could arise depending on where the facts lead and what charging decisions prosecutors ultimately face.

“That mere fact that the Murdaugh name is closely associated with the solicitor’s office doesn’t cause me any concerns at this point,” Wilcox said. “We have no idea who the solicitor will ultimately be engaged in prosecuting.”

The family’s ties to the solicitor have already influenced the structure of the investigation, causing the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office to give the State Law Enforcement Division the lead role in the investigation. The Sheriff’s Office asked SLED to take over “due to Alex Murdaugh's professional involvement with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office,” according to Capt. Angela Stallings, a spokeswoman for the department.

The sheriff’s office is still involved with the ongoing investigation, however, and it’s common for local law enforcement to ask the state for help with major cases.

SLED, meanwhile, has refused to release any reports or recordings related to the killings, citing the ongoing investigation, even though state law requires police to provide some records in the days after an incident.

People familiar with the investigation have said that Maggie, 52, and Paul, 22, were found several yards apart. Two different weapons — a shotgun and a military-style rifle — were used in the crime, those sources said.

The lone document released by law enforcement simply gives the address that officers were called to: Moselle.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

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