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Opinion >  Column

In South Carolina, a dark family tragedy. And now an arrest.

July 18, 2022 Updated Mon., July 18, 2022 at 5:19 p.m.

In the literary genre known as Southern Gothic, writers dip into the fantastic, the grotesque and the macabre because that’s just the way things are down here. Not were, but are – as in the South as it is, and ever was, and as it ever shall be, world without end.

Amen to that. Living in the South, you see, it’s hard to write for very long without splicing in some scripture. There’s a reason God and Jesus are so popular here. History without redemption would be a tough fate. How does one face the guilt of slavery without a shot at forgiveness and rebirth?

Even now, grisly crimes are not rare. Sometimes, it seems like the DNA is tainted with crazy, not because of inbreeding or too much barbecue but because Southerners are cursed with memory. People also have a deep and abiding respect for human nature; our vices ride shotgun.

And so, nothing much surprises us, even when someone as prominent as Alex Murdaugh allegedly murdered his wife, Maggie, and son Paul at their rural family compound last summer.

In such situations, the polite thing to do is to reassure one another that Alex, 64, legal scion of a dynastic Lowcountry family, couldn’t have had anything to do with the killings. Why? Because he’s a Murdaugh. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all held the top prosecutorial position in the state’s 14th Circuit, dating back to 1920. Which means one family basically controlled the scales of justice. And everything else across a good-size piece of South Carolina.

You don’t have to be a prophet to know that a family accustomed to being admired and feared for a century can begin to believe it was immune to the usual rules. This sense of entitlement tends to increase with each successive generation as the gene pool is diluted. Even so, people adapt. They’re used to things being a certain way, and everything gets sorted out at church, anyway.

Except, not this time. A Colleton County grand jury indicted Murdaugh on Thursday on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Already, he had been charged with 88 (no, that’s not a typo) criminal offenses related to alleged insurance fraud, embezzlement and assorted other offenses. Alex Murdaugh has denied any connection with the killings.

You can ask yourself why it took local authorities more than a year to charge Murdaugh with killing his wife and son. Who besides his own family couldn’t guess months ago that he was the likeliest suspect? His “distraught” call, made after he had just discovered his dead wife and son lying on the ground was, to say the least, unconvincing.

Why would he kill his wife and son? What was his motive? His lawyers are asking these questions, but authorities will hopefully explain that soon. While we’re biding time, here’s another question for readers: Why would an innocent man attempt suicide, as Murdaugh apparently did in a different incident, by paying a lousy marksman to shoot and kill him so that his surviving son, also named Alex (but known as “Buster”), could receive a $10 million payout in life insurance?

That incident might make sense if we didn’t know that Alex Murdaugh’s shirt from the night of the shootings showed blood stains that one would expect from a gunshot. Investigators also found cellphone footage that put Murdaugh at the crime scene, contradicting his claim that he had been elsewhere. And, according to People magazine, Maggie Murdaugh had texted a friend as she drove to meet her husband at the family compound. Something’s “fishy,” she reportedly texted. “He’s up to something.”

Murdaugh has already admitted to being addicted to opioids. The case has raised new questions about some other mysterious deaths, including that of the Murdaughs’ longtime housekeeper, whose body is being exhumed years after her death was declared an accident, and that of a 19-year-old man, whose demise in a possible hit-and-run accident is being reinvestigated by local authorities based on information discovered in the double murder. These are in addition to the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who was killed when the now-deceased Paul Murdaugh wrecked the family boat in a 2019 accident.

Did I mention that Southern Gothic novels tend to run long? This is a case where stranger than fiction doesn’t do the genre justice.

Then again, this is the South, where justice itself has been known to take long holidays.

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