Alex Murdaugh murder trial is grist for online gawkers
(Reuters) - In the decades-long debate over the wisdom of broadcasting courtroom proceedings, one argument for doing so is rooted in civics – that allowing cameras in court is a way to educate members of the public on how our justice system works.
The reality, however, is often less high-minded.
Consider the ongoing trial of disbarred lawyer Alex Murdaugh, who is accused of murdering his wife and son. Watching a livestream broadcast offers a window into how legions of onlookers view the proceedings before South Carolina Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, posting real-time reactions as the case unfolds.
“Love the shoes, so stylish.”
“Is the witness wearing makeup?”
“He never blinks. Like a lizard.”
“This tie and suit color is SO South Carolina.”
“Is he single?”
“I'd bet my cat he's got bourbon in his coffee mug.”
There was even lengthy speculation about whether one witness wore boxers or briefs.
Amusing? Sure. And trials in long stretches can be undeniably dull. It’s more fun to discuss someone’s hairstyle than listen to droning testimony about cell phone triangulation.
But surely our justice system should be more than a vehicle for mass entertainment -- reality TV, with lower production costs – especially considering the almost unfathomable nature of the accusations.
Murdaugh is charged with shooting his youngest son Paul, 22, on June 7, 2021, with a shotgun at point blank range in the dog kennels of the family’s 1,700-acre hunting farm in Hampton, South Carolina. Moments later, he allegedly shot his wife Maggie, 52, with an AR-style rifle.
At the time a partner at a prominent local firm co-founded by his great-grandfather, Murdaugh also faces dozens of separate charges stemming from alleged schemes to steal millions from the firm and its clients, as well as embezzlement, tax evasion and drug charges.
He’s also accused of orchestrating an unsuccessful plot to have himself killed so that his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, could collect a $10 million insurance payout, police have said.
He has pleaded not guilty.
Murdaugh’s lawyer, Richard Harpootlian of Harpootlian Law did not respond to a request for comment, nor did lead prosecutor Creighton Waters of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
The trial, which kicked off with opening statements on Jan. 25, is being livestreamed by multiple outlets.
When the Florida Supreme Court in a 1979 decision (subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) opened the doors to televised trials, the state justices reasoned that citizens “should be taught what their courts do and why. For alas, they know too little of that subject.”
By 2006, all 50 states allowed some type of camera presence in their courtrooms, according to research by Ruth Ann Strickland, a now-retired public policy professor at Appalachian State University, though federal courts have been considerably more reluctant to greenlight broadcasts.
Still, there’s a long-standing tension – one that actually precedes the advent of television -- between trials as civic education and lurid entertainment.
The American Bar Association first banned photographic and broadcast coverage of courtroom proceedings in 1937, in response to the media frenzy over the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby -- the original “trial of the century.”
Trial obsession peaked again in 1995 with O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of a double murder. According to Time magazine, a jaw-dropping 57% of the country tuned in to watch the verdict.
What’s changed since then is the advent of livestream broadcasts and the attendant commentary. For judges, scholars and legislators who wonder what edification members of the public are getting from watching televised trials, well, there’s a literal transcript of their reactions.
A few themes emerge.
First, appearances matter. Murdaugh trial viewers mercilessly dissect what participants are wearing, their posture, their speaking voice, their gestures. In that sense, it reinforces what multiple litigators have told me over the years: Jurors notice everything. And also, apparently, so do people watching on their computers.
“Do you think these witnesses go home and look at the chat to see what people say about them?” one commentator last week wondered.
Let's hope not.
But what about substance?
Most jurors, I believe, recognize the gravitas of their responsibility. A person’s fate is in their hands. But those watching on YouTube are blithely free of any such obligations.
Many have posted their conclusions about whether Murdaugh is GUILTY or not (all caps are favored for such pronouncements). They also offer myriad speculations on motive – something prosecutors have struggled to make clear in arguing that Murdaugh killed his wife and son to generate sympathy and distract from his financial crimes.
As often though, the online viewers say they’re confused or bored. Presented with hours of testimony on topics such as ballistics, cell phone records and financial practices, commentors repeatedly wondered why the lawyers and witnesses are nattering on for so long.
“I am falling asleep ZzzzzZZZzzzZZzz”
“I'm still trying to understand the point of this testimony.”
“Ok this is getting boring w/this witness. Lets get back to the murder part.”
“If I want to know the procedure of every specialist I’ll google it…why do they do this in court?”
But then within the online community, others on occasion will step in to remind fellow watchers about what’s happening and why.
Expert testimony, one wrote, helps the state build its case. “Not confusing or annoying at all -- it's showing the process of the investigation. It's impressive.”
Another added, “This is real life! Not a fake drama tv show.”
In the end, we can hope online viewers who come for the entertainment will stay for the education, logging off with a greater appreciation for what goes into a verdict.
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