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Murdaugh murder mystery highlights the power of privilege

The idea that our criminal justice system treats wealthy white people better is nothing new.
Image: Alec Murdaugh listens to prosecutors during a hearing.
Alex Murdaugh listens to prosecutors outline their case against him during bond hearing in the Richland Judicial Center in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.Lewis M. Levine / AP; MSNBC

The sordid tale of Alex Murdaugh, the patriarch of one of the oldest and most powerful families in South Carolina, happens to be unfolding during the same time as America’s long-overdue reckoning with racism in the criminal justice system. Some of the questions raised during that reckoning are the same that have been raised since June 7 when Murdaugh called police to report that his wife and son had been shot: Do our criminal laws provide true justice, and, if they ever do, for whom?

Do our criminal laws provide true justice, and, if they ever do, for whom?

Murdaugh, who has not been charged with anybody’s death, is at the center of a web of accidents, alleged accidents and shootings which altogether resulted in the deaths of five people and a superficial gunshot wound for Murdaugh himself.

The idea that our criminal justice system treats wealthy white people vastly different than less affluent or poor minorities is nothing new. Nor is it news that the phenomenon is exacerbated when power, influence and connections are added, but the multiple cases swirling around Murdaugh reveal a shocking amount of privilege on display.

That Murdaugh, an attorney at a well-known law firm founded by his great-grandfather, belongs to a family that, for more than 85 years, has had at least one member serving in the local prosecutor’s office, has reportedly instilled fear in the surrounding community. However, investigations and indictments that now involve him read like the stuff of a law school examination that has so many twists and turns you’re not expected to finish in time.

Murdaugh’s wife, Margaret, and son, Paul, were found dead of multiple gunshot wounds in June shortly after she wrote a check to a charity that was returned for insufficient funds and she was reportedly considering leaving the marriage.

The other victim, Murdaugh’s son, Paul, was facing charges of boating under the influence in a 2019 crash that killed a 19-year-old passenger, and Murdaugh and his close friend, now-suspended attorney Corey Fleming, have been accused of trying to conceal the fact that Murdaugh's son was piloting the boat. In a lawsuit, a survivor of the crash alleges a possible civil conspiracy between the Murdaugh family and law enforcement in their handling of the fatal accident.

Law enforcement officials have reopened an investigation into the 2015 unsolved death of another 19-year- old who was a classmate of Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster. That victim's mother believes her son’s killing was not an accident and that members of “prestigious families” were involved.

Murdaugh has been charged in the theft of about $3 million in insurance settlements he helped to obtain on behalf of the sons of his deceased housekeeper who reportedly fell to her death in the Murdaugh home. The cause of the housekeeper’s death was initially listed as natural causes: a brain bleed caused by the fall had caused her death, but law enforcement is taking a second look into that incident.

Murdaugh has confessed to hiring a hitman to kill him so that his $10 million life insurance policy would be paid to his surviving son.

In addition to all that, Murdaugh has confessed to hiring a hitman, a former client, to kill him so that his $10 million life insurance policy would be paid to his surviving son. The man says he refused and the gun went off in an ensuing struggle.

After he was arrested on suspicion of hiring a hitman to kill him, Murdaugh was released on bail. He was denied bail after being arrested on the suspicion of stealing insurance proceeds from the family of his family’s deceased housekeeper.

Murdaugh has also faced allegations that he misused his law firm’s money for personal use.

Prior to being arrested on charges related to the theft of the insurance settlements he obtained for his dead housekeeper’s family, Murdaugh checked himself into rehab. His response to the trouble he’s in, while not a sufficient legal defense, may be that he has faced a 20-year addiction to opioids.

We don’t know where the story of this scion of an old prominent Southern family will end. We don’t know what will become of some of the most serious allegations regarding a man who was given so much, and apparently squandered it.

Some people are born on third base. They have to do very little to score. Murdaugh is one of those people. We don’t know how much his power and privilege contributed to what he allegedly did and how he has been treated by law enforcement, but we do know that there are places in South Carolina, not to mention across the country, where many low-level criminal charges are disproportionately filed against Black people.

But of course, Murdaugh is not facing low-level criminal charges. The power and privilege bestowed upon Murdaugh mean his starting position was so far from that of an average person under similar suspicion of criminal activities that comparing his treatment to that of anyone else is virtually impossible. And that of course, is exactly what privilege is.