‘This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay'”

I had not really been following the Murdaugh case, although practically everyone who still works at The State seemed to be doing so, in their professional capacities, over the last few months. I skimmed the headlines, and there were a lot of those, so I sort of knew the gist of what had been happening before it got even crazier this past week or so.

How crazy? Well, I missed a call last night at 11:37 p.m., then listened to the voicemail this morning. It was from a night editor at The New York Post. They wanted to see if I’d cover a hearing for them today in the Murdaugh case. I’m still on their stringer list, going back to that time when I “covered” Mark Sanford’s return from Argentina back in 2009, right after I left the paper. I put “covered” in quotes because all I did was take notes at the notorious marathon presser at the State House, while someone in New York wrote the story from watching it on TV. I was just an excuse for them to put a Columbia dateline on the story. But they generously gave me a byline, under the modest, understated headline, “LUST E-MAILS OF BUENOS AIRHEAD.” As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Anyway, friends of mine in New York saw it, and brought it to my attention. Time has passed, but I’m not sure I’ve lived it down yet. Sigh…

Anyway, I said I was busy — which I was (a second Post editor called me this morning as I was taking my Dad for a medical appointment) — and wished them luck in finding someone.

But I wasn’t writing about that; this is about the Murdaugh case.

Wait, another digression… Any of you ever watch the Britbox streaming service? It’s pretty good. My wife and I have been enjoying it for about a year now. Anyway, the last couple of weeks we were watching both seasons of “The Bay.” It’s a Brit cop show built around a woman who is a family liaison officer with the police department in Morecambe, Lancashire.

Each full season — or as the Brits would say, “series” — tells the highly involved story of a single case. The second “series” is about a lawyer who is shot and killed at his own home in front of his young son. Then, as the protagonist Lisa Armstrong works with the victim’s family during the investigation, things get really complicated. Documents are found that indicate problems at the family law firm. Relationships among members of the family turn out to be unbelievably tangled, suggesting a number of reasons why the attorney was murdered. Someone else — actually, a main character on the show — is killed along the way. It takes every episode just to lay it all out.

So when my wife said the other day, “This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay’,” I nodded. Because it is. Except, more people die in this real-life story.

And here’s what’s interesting about that — to me, if not to you. Often, when we’re watching another one of these tangled mystery stories — not just “The Bay,” but all of them, with bodies falling left and right and everything so mixed up you have no idea whodunit — I observe with a knowing tone that murder in real life isn’t like this.

Murder in real life is more like… Well, I remember one from many years ago in Tennessee. One drunk shot another drunk during an argument over what to watch on TV. I remember that one not because it was so remarkable, but because it epitomized the kinds of homicides you usually see — just a straightforward, disgusting mess. No mastermind carrying out a meticulous plot. Just someone who was so obvious a kindergartener could solve the case. Except you don’t even need the kindergartener, because the killer so often confesses. Even when it’s in the first degree.

Anyway, that’s the kind of killing I generally covered during my brief time as a reporter, more than 40 years ago back in Tennessee.

But the Murdaugh case isn’t like that. It’s more like the ones on TV. And we’re all still waiting for the answers to the biggest questions, as if we were on the next-to-last episode of a season of “The Bay,” or “Unforgotten.”

And that’s why the whole country is riveted. By the way, if you’ve been ignoring it much as I had been until now, it’s kind of handy to read the accounts today in national newspapers, because they have to touch on all the main episodes in the story. Here’s the one in The New York Times, and here’s the one today in The Washington Post

Just like a TV mystery. Except, of course, that it involves real people, our neighbors. I don’t know the Murdaughs, but I know people who know them. I know one of Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers, for instance, as do many of you.

And for months, I refused to be entertained by the horror visited upon this family and the people around them. I refused to be a riveted consumer of a latter-day penny dreadful. A made-up story on TV is one thing. This is entirely different.

But it’s become rather difficult to ignore, hasn’t it?

11 thoughts on “‘This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay'”

  1. Norm Ivey

    It keeps popping up on my social media feeds, and I keep scrolling past it. Not interested in stories about my fellow humans in their darkest moments.

    Just one more embarrassment for South Carolina.

    1. Barry

      Got a feeling this guy had dark moments for decades and inflicted a lot of dark moments on other people.

      The story is going to be how the public was not aware of It for so long.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Another thing about “darkest moments.”

      As I said, I agree completely with Norm on this.

      But with me, it goes broader. I’m not interested in stuff about other people’s PERSONAL lives, even the bits that aren’t dark.

      I was reminded of this when perusing my Washington Post app and seeing the weekly (or maybe it’s more like daily; it seems like I’m always seeing this feature) story about how some couple’s DATE went.

      Why on Earth would anyone want to read that? And even more amazing to me, why would either of the parties involved go along with that?

      It’s been close to half a century since I was engaged in the awful social and emotional quagmire of “dating,” but near as I can recall, I would NEVER have wanted to see the details published. Even if it had gone well. In fact, maybe ESPECIALLY not if it had gone well. And if I’d engaged in it as an adult, I’d have been even more appalled at baring such a thing to the world. I mean, one likes to assume some small amount of dignity at some point in one’s life — doesn’t one?

      And I definitely have zero interest in reading about someone else going through those awkward rituals. Why is anyone interested? Is it a Schadenfreude thing?

  2. randle

    I’ve been following it since a friend brought it to my attention in late May. I try to keep my inner and outer voyeur at bay, speaking of bays, but a cursory reading of Paul Murdaugh’s case piqued my interest because it was so appallingly handled by local officials and the victim’s family was left to fend for themselves, seems like. Within days, Paul and his mother were shot and killed — and again, very strange doings surrounding those crimes. Like Brad, I’m a heavy consumer of British mysteries and crime shows (also a Britbox subscriber), and, by now, they have me well-trained in fictional red flags, which seemed to be flying around this real-life case. Then, in short order, two more questionable deaths associated with the Murdaughs were revisited. Seems like there should be a reckoning for 5 deaths somehow in our justice system. And now we have possible drug deals and a possibly corrupt judicial system, going back decades and possibly involving the entire state. That’s a lot of possibilities. I’m not interested in convicting anyone in the press, but I’m not worldly wise enough to shrug my shoulders at it. We’ve had enough of that over the years. I would like to see justice done.
    Mandy Matney and Fits News are the best sources for this story. After reading accounts in The State, Packet and the Post and Courier early on and finding them lacking, I went hunting for fuller coverage, and Matney is doing excellent investigative reporting. The others have lagged behind.
    Our state and local officials bear watching as they handle this spiraling mess. They are on trial right now. As they should be.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, and yes, as Randle and Barry suggest, there are elements of this that bear upon public policy and accountability.


      But I don’t think that’s why it gets so many clicks that newspapers (which too often today have pretty much abandoned importance for clicks) throw so many resources at it. I think it happens more because of the soap opera elements…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, I’m not saying the editors who still get paid to work at newspapers are being bad people. They just have the bad luck to be working in the industry at a time when:

        1. It is possible to know with startling precision how much a story is being read. We had a pretty good idea before the Web, but it was easier for us to balance reader interest with significance, because the numbers weren’t slapping us in the face.

        2. Newspapers have, except on the national level, pretty much ceased to exist, and the sad ghosts of them that remain have to consider how they are going to continue to carry on, given their shockingly diminished financial viability.

        3. The business people who own these diminished establishments have, for the first time ever, numbers to beat journalists about the head a shoulders with. And these are people who care profoundly about numbers, and generally have little or no concept of news judgment.

        Basically, this is a terrible time to be a journalist other than at The Washington Post or NYT or somewhere with similar scale and resources. So I’m not going to trash people who are doing their best under horrific circumstances. They have my sympathy, and even appreciation…

        1. Randle

          I’m sure plenty of people are interested in the story for its lurid details. That’s normal. But when I read the comments after articles in the WaPo or NYT or online, a whole lot of them are directed at the political system the Murdaugh family operated in and whether they have gotten special treatment over the years as powerful players within it. In other words, is there a special set of rules for the powerful and another for everyone else in Hampton County? That is worth discovering, as is the resolution to five deaths. Just like in crime stories on TV, people watch to see justice served.

        2. Randle

          No one is trashing the other outlets for their coverage. I understand the pressure they’re under., but it doesn’t change the fact that they just haven’t been as good as FitsNews getting this story out. It’s kind of surprising, though since this story would generate lots of clicks.


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