Late Thursday, South Carolina circuit court judge Clifton Newman and Colleton County court officials released a series of so-called “crime scene” photos taken in the aftermath of the gruesome double homicide at the heart of the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga.
To recap: At approximately 8:49 p.m. EDT on the evening of June 7, 2021, powerful Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh is accused by prosecutors of brutally murdering his youngest son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, and then turning and gunning down his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh as she attempted to flee.
Paul Murdaugh sustained catastrophic wounds from a pair of shotgun blasts on that fateful evening – one to the head, the other to the arm and chest. Maggie Murdaugh also sustained gruesome, unsurvivable wounds from multiple .300 blackout rounds fired from a semi-automatic rifle. At least two of Maggie Murdaugh’s gunshot wounds were inflicted as she was lying wounded on the ground – consistent with initial reports we received of “execution-style” slayings.
The case has become an international sensation, and has been dubbed South Carolina’s ‘Trial of the Century.’
Murdaugh was charged with these murders on July 14, 2022. He pleaded not guilty and asked to be judged “by God and country.” His trial is currently taking place in Walterboro, S.C.
The problem with the selective release of these “crime scene” photos? First, the handful of images released to the media do not even begin to cover the number of photos taken at the scene. Also, court officials have not released any of the body-worn camera footage which was presented in court earlier this week – redacted or otherwise.
Even worse, members of the media were prohibited from viewing any of this evidence in court. Lawyers literally held up banker’s boxes and taped sheets of paper over monitors to prohibit the press from seeing images or videos of the crime scene.
Look … I can (sort of) understand limiting media access to sensitive files, but in a courtroom that has been literally cordoned off from media phones, laptops (even Apple watches) … why are reporters not allowed to at least use their eyeballs to assess the evidence and report back to their audiences?
At the end of the day, isn’t that our job?
In case you haven’t yet seen the handful of “crime scene” photos that were released, here is a gallery …
(Click to view)
Let me be clear about something: This is not about members of the media – including our news outlet – wanting to splash sensational images and video of gore and guts all over the internet. I mean, we live in a world so desensitized to the macabre I doubt most people would be overly shocked by the materials, but that is not the issue.
As I have said often over the course of the past week, the issue is that this is a public trial. It is being held in a public courtroom. Public prosecutors are submitting evidence which, by definition, is public information. Every solitary shred of it.
Let me repeat that: This is public information.
All of it.
That means barring extraordinary circumstances, the public has a right to see it … even if it is graphic.
FITSNews has already received copies of multiple crime scene photos in this case (including some truly jarring ones). And as I noted in a previous post, we declined to publish those images.
Even in the event all of the graphic photos and videos are made public – as they should be – I haven’t decided how we would handle them. Certainly they would not be splashed on our homepage or directly visible in our articles, but on some level there is a public right to see these materials in some form or fashion.
And at the very least, if these materials are going to be sealed and hidden from the public view it becomes all the more vital for journalists inside the courtroom to be able to see these exhibits as they are presented and review them after the fact.
Prior to the commencement of these proceedings, I penned a column acknowledging the need for certain restrictions on media access to the courtroom. Logistically, it would have been absolutely impossible to accommodate everyone wanting to bring a camera or a livestream set-up into the court to do so.
Court officials were wise to designate pool photographers and a single source for the livestream.
But after a disappointing reversal on an initial order allowing the press to bring cell phones into court, it seems as though every day restrictions on media access to the critical components of this trial grow more draconian – like a powerful boa constrictor tightening its grip.
(Click to view)
Again, I will admit a bit of self-interest here. More access equals more info, which equals more clicks … which equals more money. But that self-interest pales in comparison with the public interest at stake in this case, which is not only a trial of Alex Murdaugh – but of the entire South Carolina judicial system.
Retired law professor Jay Bender – a transparency advocate with years of experience litigating public records access cases – has been serving as a liaison between the court and the media during this trial.
I like Bender. And as our audience is well aware, I have written glowingly of judge Newman on multiple occasions in the past. Also, Colleton court officials like Becky Hill and her team have gone above and beyond in this trial to accommodate some big egos in and out of the courtroom. Every night after the trial is over, in fact, you can see the light in Hill’s office still burning as she and her staff work overtime to make sure things keep running smoothly.
But as the first week of this trial draws to a close, the fact remains the level of media access to critical information being presented in the courtroom is simply unacceptable. And has to change.
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.
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I have to say I love your wife’s shoes!
Someone leak the autopsy and crime scene photos already!!!!
I want to see the photos for myself, with my own two eyes. ALL OF THEM