Mardi Link: I can't not watch the Lowcountry trial
Mar. 5—The man lied, cheated his business partners, admitted to being a phony, as someone with charm and smarts enough to disguise what officials said were the dark corners of his character.
Killing people close to him, however, was beyond the pale, something he said he'd never do and had not done.
Last month, network television broadcast hours of live testimony from the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, an attorney accused of fatally shooting his wife and youngest son in a failed attempt to direct attention away from his financial crimes.
"By Friday morning, you'd have been hard-pressed to recall that the proceeding was a murder trial, as lead prosecutor Creighton Waters litigated Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes — a handful of the 99 charges against him in a separate set of indictments that haven't yet been tried," a Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote.
"Under sometimes testy cross-examination, Murdaugh basically confessed to almost every financial allegation Waters raised," Parker said. "He didn't dispute that he lied, misled and took money that wasn't his."
Live testimony from the trial was also broadcast on Youtube, attracting millions of viewers, including me.
I've listened to a podcast about the case by former newspaper reporter Mandy Matney, and read an article published in the New Yorker, "The Swamp: Murder and corruption in the Murdaugh family."
South Carolina's Lowcountry isn't in the Record-Eagle's coverage area, obviously; I've never met anyone related to the case, but neither have a majority of online viewers, I'd wager.
Why, then, do we watch?
As the debt ceiling looms, as Ukraine fights for its democratic future, while global climate change alters our weather in unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic ways and mass shootings infect the U.S. as surely as the coronavirus, some of us still find ourselves riveted to what one accused man might say on the witness stand.
And I have a theory about that.
I think we watch because we've grown weary, cynical even, of a justice system that brags about its fairness, then favors the rich and well-connected over everyone else.
We watch because this is such a widely accepted truth, that when someone from that rarified world goes on trial, especially for a violent crime, it is so unusual we're compelled to tune in.
Murdaugh is being tried in South Carolina's Circuit Court; should he be found guilty and decide to appeal his conviction to the highest court in the land, he may find comfort in a 2020 finding by Time magazine.
"Conservative Supreme Court justices," Time reported, "who rarely vote to reverse convictions of poor criminal defendants, have shown a clear sympathy for rich ones."
According to the New Yorker article referenced earlier, the Murdaugh family was so intertwined with the justice system in South Carolina's Lowcountry, a photograph of Alex Murdaugh's grandfather, Randolph "Buster" Murdaugh, hung on the wall at the back of the courtroom and had to be taken down for the trial.
I'll admit, I'm as intrigued as anyone about how such a well-connected person will be treated by the court.
But I have another, more personal, reason for watching.
On May 8, 1973, a Detroit-area businessman, Joe Scolaro, sat down at his desk and typed a note.
"I am a liar-cheat-phony," this note read. "I owe everybody you can think of. I've made poor investments and in some cases no investments at all."
Then, in a postscript, and handwritten as if it were an afterthought, Scolaro added: "P.S. I had nothing to do with the Robisons. I'm a cheat but not a murderer."
The Robison family — two parents, four children — were shot to death in their Good Hart cabin July 22, 1968.
Scolaro worked for Richard Robison's successful advertising agency. Michigan State Police records show when Robison took his family up north for the summer, leaving Scolaro in charge, money went missing.
The note from his office typewriter was the last thing Scolaro ever wrote — he died by suicide before a warrant for his arrest could be served.
There was no trial and 55 years later the case remains, officially at least, unsolved.
No 24-hour news cycle occupied our psyche in 1968, there were no podcasts, and the New Yorker never sent a writer to Good Hart — a place as remote and insular as the Lowcountry.
Detectives who inherited the case once told me if the crime happened today, it would be solved, the person responsible tried and convicted.
There's no way to know if that's true, and as I write this, reporters covering the Murdaugh trial say they expect that case to go to the jury this week.
Whatever the verdict in South Carolina, Good Hart has not forgotten the Robisons.
I know because after publishing a book about the case in 2008, I still get notes, phone calls and emails from a few of the community's 500 or so year-round residents.
They write to share a memory, or ask a question. Some say they see parallels between the two cases, otherwise so separate in time and geography.
"It struck me like lightning," one emailer said. "How the sound of his testimony is so reminiscent of Joe."
Email Senior Reporter Mardi Link at firstname.lastname@example.org.