“Please come quickly,” a man calls into the phone, completely distraught. It’s June 7, 2021, just after 10 p.m. in a remote part of the US state of South Carolina. The houses here are sometimes kilometers apart, on the edges of fields, separated by dense forest. “I need the police and an ambulance.” The man on the phone sounds desperate, his voice cracks again and again. “My wife and son were shot, it’s bad.”

The voice belongs to Alex Murdaugh. More than a year and a half after the 911 call, the 54-year-old former attorney will be sitting in the sober courtroom of the tranquil southern town of Walterboro, a good 30 kilometers from the scene, saying he was involved in the murders of his 22-year-old son Paul and his 52-year-old wife Maggie had nothing to do that evening. Again and again he will burst into tears during his interrogation, which lasted several days, just like that evening on the phone.

And he will admit to lying when he told police he was far away from the scene of the crime that June 7 – that place down there by the kennels at the other end of the huge property, hundreds of yards from where the man lived family away. Murdaugh’s voice can be heard in a cellphone video of his murdered son, taken minutes before the crime. It is the key indicator.

Broadcast live on TV

How do we know all this? Because the trial took place in public – and the story of a tragedy became a media spectacle: For weeks, reporters from all US television stations stood in front of the courthouse in small Walterboro, in front of the massive portal with the thick Greek columns to the staircases winding on both sides lead up. Cameras in the courtroom show every move of Alex Murdaugh in close-up, microphones broadcast every word into American living rooms, day after day, for hours on end. And a whole nation is watching, spellbound.

Live broadcasts of court hearings have a long tradition in the USA. On October 3, 1995, according to US media, around 150 million people, more than half of the US population at the time, watched the verdict in the murder case against prominent former American football player O.J. Simpson. In many cases, the presiding judge can direct whether cameras will be allowed in his courtroom. The relationship to personal rights and privacy is different in the USA than in Germany. Supporters of live broadcasts often invoke the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of the press.

power and influence

The case of the Murdaugh murders both frightens and fascinates. Because Alex Murdaugh is the son of a highly respected South Carolina law dynasty that has had power and influence in the area. According to his own statements, he earned millions. But also because there have been several mysterious deaths in the vicinity of Murdaugh’s family in the past. Murdoch himself said he was severely addicted to opiates. A few months after the murder of his son and his wife, he is said to have hired a hitman to kill him himself. Murdaugh reportedly wanted his $10 million life insurance policy to be paid out to his other surviving son.

Brilliant light and abysmal darkness: in the case of Murdaugh, they are always close together. It’s Hollywood stuff. The streaming platform Netflix processed the fate of the Murdaugh family into a three-part documentary series. Shortly after its February 22 release, Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal was number two on Netflix’s US Top 10. The series can also be seen in Germany.

Just a distraction?

This week the drama came to a temporary conclusion. On Thursday, after deliberating for just three hours, a 12-person jury found Murdaugh guilty of the murders of his wife and son. According to the public prosecutor’s office, he is said to have committed the crimes to distract from his growing financial problems.

Murdaugh appeared in court one last time for the sentencing hearing on Friday. Not in a white shirt and jacket this time – he was brought before the judge in handcuffs, wearing a khaki prison suit and orange rubber sandals.

Two life sentences without parole. “It was the most devastating case of my career,” said Judge Clifton Newman at the sentencing hearing. “I know you need to see Paul and Maggie at night when you’re trying to sleep. I’m sure they’ll come visit you.” It’s a cinematic ending to a drama. At least for the time being, as Murdaugh’s lawyers have said they intend to appeal the guilty verdict.