It’s no secret that the justice system of the United States is anything but just. Privilege, race, and social status all play a major part in the sentence that someone might receive for committing a crime in this country. And, every day, a wealthy white person walks away scot-free from a crime that might land an underprivileged black American in prison for a decade or more. This iniquity is well-understood and well-documented; however, never before has the role of privilege been so in-your-face as in the case of the Murdaugh family, the subject of Netflix’s new true crime documentary Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.
This documentary, released to Netflix on February 22, 2023, begins with the story of a drunken boating accident that resulted in the death of an innocent young woman named Mallory Beach. The driver of the boat was a young man named Paul Murdaugh, the son of a well-known lawyer in Hampton County, South Carolina. In the aftermath of the accident, it’s revealed just how far the Murdaugh family will go to preserve their elite social status and stay above the law. From there, the past crimes of the Murdaugh family begin to come to light, which leads to several more tragic deaths.
Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is a tale of addiction, violence, and tragedy. But, more than anything, it’s a representation of how large of a role privilege (as a result of race, wealth, and heritage) is allowed to play in the criminal justice system of the United States. Let’s take a look at the events detailed in this documentary and the status of the case today.
The Tragic Death of Mallory Beach
The first death documented in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is nothing short of heartbreaking. The majority of the first episode of the three-episode limited series focuses on the events leading up to the death of Mallory Beach in 2019.
The evening began with a group of friends attending a party on Parris Island, which they traveled to on a boat owned by the Murdaugh family and driven by Paul Murdaugh. During the party, Paul had been drinking heavily, guzzling several beers through a funnel. Once the party ended, the group of friends got back on the boat to go home; however, Paul insisted that they stop at a bar along the way for more drinking.
After they all got back in the boat, a heavily intoxicated Paul Murdaugh drove the boat into a bridge piling, sending several passengers overboard and ultimately leading to the death of Mallory Beach.
In the aftermath of the crash, Paul’s father Alex Murdaugh (a man of significant social stature in the Hampton County legal system) tried to silence the other passengers on the boat, intimidating them as they lay in their hospital beds. The boat itself was towed off the shore by a good friend of the Murdaugh family, implying that evidence may have been tampered with in this case.
From there, as eyes began to turn to the Murdaugh family, more and more of Alex Murdaugh’s transgressions began to surface.
Paul and Maggie Are Found Dead
On June 7th, 2021, Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie were found dead at the family’s hunting lodge in Islandton, South Carolina. Both of them had been shot at close range with guns that are believed to have been owned by the Murdaugh family.
Initially, Alex Murdaugh (father of Paul and husband of Maggie) claimed to have been visiting his parents at the time of the murders. However, forensic spatter evidence pulled from one of Alex Murdaugh’s shirts proved that Alex Murdaugh had to have been present during the time of their murders. There are two separate photos from the night of the murder that show Alex Murdaugh wearing two different shirts. On top of that, a video was recovered from Paul Murdaugh’s phone in which you can hear Alex Murdaugh’s voice and it’s time-stamped about 15 minutes before the murders occurred (when Alex Murdaugh claimed to be with his parents).
All of these very damning pieces of evidence led investigators to name Alex Murdaugh as a suspect in the murder of his wife and second son. Investigators also began looking more closely into two past cases in which the Murdaugh family name was connected. The facts in these cases suggest that this may not have been the first time that the Murdaugh family was involved in a murder.
The Mysterious Death of Stephen Smith
While looking into the past of the Murdaugh family, investigators uncovered that Alex Murdaugh’s eldest son Buster Murdaugh’s name appeared in a case file in connection with a mysterious death that occurred in 2015. The deceased was a young man by the name of Stephen Smith, a classmate of Buster Murdaugh who was rumored to have had a secret sexual relationship with Buster.
On July 8th, 2015, the body of 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found on Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina. Buster’s name had come up in the investigation; however, Buster was never interviewed and Stephen’s death was attributed to a hit-and-run car crash.
However, many things about the scene were not consistent with a hit-and-run car crash. Stephen’s body was found in the middle of the road, which means he would’ve had to have been walking directly in the middle of the road. Stephen’s also had visible injuries that couldn’t possibly have been inflicted by a car.
Despite all of these facts and the fact that many of Buster Murdaugh’s classmates suggested that Buster and Stephen were having a relationship (and that the Murdaugh family was openly homophobic), the case was deemed a hit-and-run and the case was closed.
The Fall of Gloria Satterfield
To add to the list of mysterious deaths connected to the Murdaugh family, the Murdaughs’ housekeeper Gloria Satterfield fell down the front steps of the Murdaugh’s family home and died. According to Murdaughs’ lawyers, Gloria was tripped by one of their dogs and suffered fatal head trauma. However, no autopsy was ever performed on Gloria’s body.
Very suspiciously, Alex Murdaugh took out a commercial insurance policy on the home about one month before Gloria Satterfield died on the property. After her death, Alex Murdaugh collected around $4.3 million from the insurance payout related to Gloria’s death.
To make matters worse, Alex Murdaugh brought a civil lawsuit against himself for the wrongful death of Gloria Satterfield, masquerading as if he were doing the right thing by Gloria’s sons. However, Gloria’s sons never saw a penny of the $505,000 settlement; all of that money was instead misappropriated into Alex Murdaugh’s bank account.
The Investigation Continues
In another strange turn after the death of his wife and son, Alex Murdaugh claimed that he was shot in the head on the side of the road while changing the tire on his car. However, investigators have since proven that the wound seen on Alex Murdaugh’s head was self-inflicted and not caused by a gun. It seems that Murdaugh tried to fake a murder attempt for some reason.
Alex Murdaugh is currently on trial for the murder of his wife Maggie and son Paul. Alex Murdaugh has taken the stand in his own defense and his eldest son Buster has also taken the stand in the defense of his father. The trial was even postponed at one point due to a bomb threat. The cases of Gloria Satterfield and Stephen Smith have since been reopened and Alex and Buster Murdaugh are both being looked at closely in connection to their deaths.
All in all, this case is a harrowing tale of what can happen if privilege is left unchecked. Alex Murdaugh believed that, due to his heritage, wealth, race, and social status, he could do whatever he wanted and remain above the law. And, unfortunately, he was correct about that for many years.