In an article eerily reminiscent of O.J. Simpson’s 2007 book If I Did It, a reporter from The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet laid out the defense Paul Murdaugh’s high-powered attorneys were planning to present to a jury had their client lived to stand trial on a trio of boating under the influence charges.
The 22-year-old fortunate son – who was rumored to have had a diabolical alter-ego – was staring down potentially decades in prison after he allegedly got drunk and crashed his father’s 17-foot, center console Sea Hunt fishing boat into a piling near the Archer’s Creek Bridge outside of Parris Island, S.C. shortly after 2:00 a.m. EDT on February 23, 2019.
Seconds before the boat crashed, GPS data obtained by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) indicated the vessel was traveling at a speed of approximately 29 miles per hour (or approximately 25 knots).
The crash killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach of Hampton county, South Carolina and injured several other passengers.
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Beach (above) was flung into the dark, cold water in the aftermath of the boat’s impact with the bridge – never to be seen alive again. Her body was found a week later by fishermen more than five miles from the crash site.
In the aftermath of the crash, Murdaugh – the scion of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest, most influential families – was charged by the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson with one count of boating under the influence resulting in death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury. Deputy attorney general Megan Burchstead was slated to be the lead prosecutor on the case.
If convicted, Murdaugh could have faced up to 25 years in prison on the fatal boating under the influence charge (with a minimum of a year behind bars) and up to 15 years in prison (with a minimum of thirty days in jail) on the two bodily injury charges, per the S.C. Code of Laws (§ 50-21-113).
In addition to these counts, it would have been interesting to see whether Murdaugh would have faced any additional charges in connection with his alleged role in the fatal crash (and the events leading up to it).
What sort of charges am I referring to? Witness descriptions of the events that took place just prior to the crash raise the question of whether Murdaugh could have been charged with assault (for allegedly pushing and slapping his former girlfriend) or possibly even kidnapping (for allegedly refusing to relinquish control of the vessel/ allow passengers on the boat to disembark prior to the crash).
Obviously, though, Murdaugh did not live long enough to stand trial on any charge …
DON’T MISS A STORY …
Along with his 52-year-old mother, Maggie Murdaugh, Paul Murdaugh was brutally murdered as part of a still-unsolved double homicide that took place on a family hunting property in Colleton county two months ago. An ongoing investigation into these “Murdaugh Murders” – first reported by this news outlet – has yet to yield any (named) suspects or produce any arrests. Agents with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) have kept a tight lid on their inquiries related to the crime, too, offering next-to-nothing in the way of a narrative or suspected motive for the slayings.
So far, the only person identified as a “person of interest” in the case is R. Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh – Maggie’s husband and Paul’s father. That could be because he was the one who discovered the bodies, though.
Alex Murdaugh, incidentally, is among the codefendants in an ongoing civil action related to the 2019 boat crash – as well as one of several Murdaughs reportedly at the heart of an ongoing criminal inquiry into alleged obstruction of justice in its aftermath. News of that inquiry was exclusively reported by this news outlet four days after the killings.
Representing Paul Murdaugh in the boat crash case were veteran defense attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin – both of Columbia, S.C. To say Harpootlian and Griffin are heavy hitters is an understatement. Along with Pete Strom of Columbia, Beattie Ashmore of Greenville, Andy Savage of Charleston and Jack Swerling of Columbia, they are widely regarded as being among the most talented and experienced defense attorneys in the entire state.
According to reporter Jake Shore of The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet, Harpootlian and Griffin believed they had a compelling case to make in Paul Murdaugh’s defense. Specifically, Shore said they intended to present “conflicting police and witness statements” which created “confusion” as to who was driving the boat at the time it crashed.
Was there any confusion as to who was driving the boat, though?
No. At least not among any of the crash survivors …
Not only that, evidence released in the aftermath of the incident points to the Murdaughs orchestrating the confusion – which would certainly explain why the family is the focus of the aforementioned statewide grand jury investigation into alleged obstruction.
Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, referenced this obstruction inquiry on Wednesday afternoon in responding to my request for comment on Shore’s story.
“It remains inappropriate for us to set out what we intended to present as this is an ongoing investigation,” Kittle told me this week.
Indeed, the obstruction investigation is ongoing. But, in light of the Island Packet’s propaganda piece on behalf of the Murdaughs, I believe it would have been entirely appropriate for the attorney general’s office to rip the narrative the paper presented to its readers to shreds.
After all, they would have likely done so in court… showing jurors how any “confusion” in the aftermath of the crash was deliberately concocted with the explicit objective of throwing law enforcement and prosecutors off of the trail.
Nonetheless, Griffin told Shore he and Harpootlian intended to “capitalize on that confusion” to help clear Paul Murdaugh at trial, according to the Packet story.
The problem with such a strategy? Every single witness who was deposed in connection with the ongoing civil trial made it crystal clear: Paul Murdaugh was driving the boat at the time it crashed.
No one else …
That jibes with what investigators uncovered on the criminal side, too.
“There was no confusion about the driver,” a source close to the case told me emphatically this week.
One of the survivors of the crash – Beach’s boyfriend Anthony Cook – even told police he pleaded with Paul Murdaugh to let him take control of the craft just before it slammed into the piling.
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“I begged to drive the f*cking boat,” Cook (above) said on one of the post-crash videos released by SCDNR.
In addition to peddling the “confusion” narrative, Shore told Packet readers there were “problems with evidence” in the case. Specifically, he referred to Griffin’s allegations that an alcohol swab of Paul Murdaugh’s arm prior to a blood draw at a local hospital would have “artificially” inflated his blood alcohol content.
A toxicologist who spoke with the Island Packet said Paul Murdaugh’s blood alcohol content on the morning of the crash was 0.24 – three times the legal limit.
Seriously … how in the hell would an alcohol swab of someone’s arm put so much as a dent in that level of drunkenness?
Blood alcohol content aside, responding officers attested to Paul Murdaugh’s intoxication. Survivors of the boat crash attested to his intoxication. Staff and security at the hospital where those injured in the crash received treatment attested to his intoxication. Also, there are videos of Paul Murdaugh taken in the aftermath of the crash in which he appears to be intoxicated. Oh, and his late grandfather – former S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III – reportedly said Paul was “as drunk as Cooter Brown” at the hospital after the crash.
Ironically, Murdaugh’s attorneys seem to have been preparing for the reality that a jury was not going to accept their “he wasn’t drunk” defense. Specifically, they were prepared to advance the theory that the path of the boat before the crash was “pretty consistent” – implying a person at Paul’s “level of intoxication” would not have been able to operate the craft in “that controlled a manner.”
So … which is it, gentleman?
The Murdaughs are one of the most influential families in South Carolina – especially in the Palmetto Lowcountry. Two members of the family currently work as attorneys for a powerful regional law firm and three generations of Murdaughs served as solicitor (or district attorney) for a five-county region from 1920-2007.
As a result, the family wields tremendous power over police, prosecutors, politicians and judges across the state – influence which has already created prosecutorial problems in connection with the “Murdaugh Murders” investigation.
My take on all this? While I certainly appreciate these attorneys trying to put their best spin on things (that’s their job), the Island Packet should be embarrassed for amplifying/ enabling their propaganda via such a one-sided, easily debunked “crayon commentary.” I know the Packet has been getting crushed (in its own back yard) when it comes to breaking news related to this saga – and I also know its parent company just went bankrupt. Still, desperation for clicks is no excuse for publishing such laughable, fact-challenged pablum.
Which real “journalists” ought to know …
Given the Murdaughs’ tentacles in the Lowcountry, you would think the local “paper of record” would want to zealously protect its journalistic integrity and aggressively assert its professional independence … rather than come off as a spoon-fed mouthpiece for this puppeteering family and its powerful lawyers.
But we all have our roles to play, I suppose …
And I can’t be too upset at the paper’s decision .. after all, Shore’s ridiculous “If Paul Did It” fantasy fiction piece may have gotten his paper a few clicks, but at the end of the day it is another reason why readers do not go to the Packet for the latest news and analysis on this story. They come here.
News director Mandy Matney contributed to this report.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Boston Red Sox lid pictured above).
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