I was sent a photo last night that perfectly captures what the past five weeks have been like.
This photo was taken by Grace Beahm Alford of The Post and Courier, one of the handful of photographers designated by the court to capture images of the trial on behalf of all news agencies.
In it, Alex Murdaugh — guarded by a deputy — is walking past his adult son, Buster, during a break in Buster’s testimony Tuesday morning.
Alex is presumably being taken to a restroom.
Buster is standing by the court reporter, his hands deep in his pockets, his chin at his chest.
As Alex passes by, he reaches out his hand and seizes this opportunity of sudden proximity to pat Buster on the backside.
The photographer captured that exact moment.
The image is not one I ever wanted or needed to see — but I had a strong reaction to it.
It immediately became all things at once.
A tall ginger man getting touched on the posterior by an even taller ginger man.
A surviving son receiving brief affection from his jailed father.
The victim of two grisly murders getting a love tap from the man who is on trial for those killings.
It is a picture of absurdity, of privilege, of power, of forgiveness, of loyalty, of longing, of abuse, of bullying, of coercion, of family, of control, of entitlement, of sadness, of broken hearts and of love.
The photo is a litmus test. What you see when you look at it is deeply influenced by how you view the Murdaughs.
Is Alex a man who has been wrongfully accused?
Is he a murderer who thought he could talk his way out of consequence?
Is he evil? Is he loving? Is he guilty? Is he innocent?
Obviously, the photo annoyed me. Once again the Murdaughs were breaking the rules inside the courtroom because no touching!
Two weeks earlier, after repeated warnings, the family — in attendance every day — had been moved back a few rows from Alex because of their behavior.
They were seen passing notes to him during proceedings, appearing to use the phone of one of Alex’s attorneys as an Etch A Sketch of sorts. They were touching him and talking to him and, as I’ve told you before, treating the courtroom like their own personal social hour.
According to reports, Alex’s sister twice got caught trying to hand Alex contraband — a book by John Grisham.
I kid you not.
The man who IS a John Grisham novel apparently READS John Grisham novels.
On Tuesday, Buster Murdaugh — the son Alex isn’t accused of killing — took the stand for the defense.
Ostensibly, he was there to bolster his father’s case but he gave off the appearance of a beaten down dog wanting to please his master.
The photo was him getting his reward. His treat. Good boy.
But that’s just me. That’s my take on what I saw, based on my particular biases, formed by four years of research and interviews and unhealthy immersion, if we’re being honest.
The trial has had a series of these moments. It is a reminder of the self-sorting nature of humans, the preternatural need to be right about something, the desire to be part of a team.
Is the dress blue with black lace or white with gold lace?
Do you hear Yanni or Laurel?
When he was interviewed by SLED three days after the murders, did Alex Murdaugh say “I did him so wrong” or “They did him so wrong” when referring to his murdered son Paul?
On Tuesday, the day started off with Jim Griffin, one of Alex’s defense attorneys, getting righteously scolded by Judge Clifton Newman on national TV for calling the state’s investigation against Alex “sloppy” on Twitter over the weekend. It was an extrajudicial statement, something that is against the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.
Then there was Buster’s obsequious testimony.
Then the defense called their first expert witness — a man whose specialty is reconstructing car wrecks. They had retained him in Paul Murdaugh’s boat crash case and were using him to reconstruct the shootings of Maggie and Paul. On cross-examination, the state destroyed him and the man walked out of the courtroom with metaphorical poster boards smashed over his head and ringing his neck.
The defense had a bad day, I thought.
The defense had a great day, Court TV declared.
One picture. So many ways to look at it.
Liz Farrell has lived in the Lowcountry since 2003. She is an award-winning journalist and co-host of the Murdaugh Murders Podcast and Cup of Justice podcast with Mandy Matney. The two have been investigating the Murdaugh story for four (very strange) years. You can reach them both by going to murdaughmurderspodcast.com.