Disbarred South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh is in a world of trouble, and Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal—a three-part Netflix docuseries (Feb. 22) about his numerous alleged crimes—won’t help his cause.
A detailed non-fiction investigation into the scandals that preceded, and culminated with, the June 2021, slaying of his wife Maggie and younger son Paul, it’s a damning exposé told in large part by those who were closest to Mallory Beach, the 19-year-old who died in a boating accident caused by Paul. Its only failing is that, with Murdaugh currently on trial for the murders of his son and spouse, it’s a fundamentally incomplete portrait—thereby suggesting that additional chapters covering ongoing events may be on the way.
Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal is thus almost too timely, jumping the gun a bit by arriving before its story has reached a conclusion. While it’s perhaps difficult to imagine Alex being exonerated for the double homicide of which he’s accused, stranger things have happened when it comes to his clan, as demonstrated by directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst’s series. The doc initially focuses on Feb. 23, 2019, when Paul took a boat ride out to an oyster roast with his girlfriend Morgan Doughty, their friends Miley Altman and Connor Cook, and Connor’s cousin Anthony Cook and his girlfriend Mallory. As was his tendency, Paul quickly got hammered and then refused to let anyone else drive his boat home. After a scuffle in which Paul slapped Morgan—not the first time such abuse had taken place, according to Morgan—the boat crashed into a piling under a bridge on Archers Creek.
While everyone on board suffered injuries, Mallory was nowhere to be found; her body was recovered seven days later. As recalled in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal by Anthony, Morgan, Miley, and Connor—as well as their parents—from the moment they arrived at the hospital, Paul’s dad Alex and grandfather Randolph tried to manipulate the situation in Paul’s favor, largely by keeping them quiet and by positing Connor as the boat’s actual driver. This was, they all make clear, par for the Murdaugh course, since the family was renowned for their wealth and influence in the Lowcountry region, to the point of being synonymous with law and order. With connections that ran deep, they did their damage-control best to protect Paul. It wasn’t enough, though, and over the next two years, Paul’s responsibility became common knowledge among locals and made him the target of a civil lawsuit.
Morgan, Anthony, Miley, and Connor discuss at length Paul’s privileged entitlement, family problems, and Jekyll and Hyde personality (brought about by excessive boozing) in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal. Providing insight into the kid’s screwy headspace and, with it, the domestic environment in which he was raised, they cast the Murdaughs as a regional dynasty that used their money and clout to do whatever they pleased. That alone would make them gross, if hardly worthy of much attention. Yet as Nason and Furst reveal, it apparently led the Murdaughs to think they could get away with taking innocent lives—both with regards to Mallory and to two additional individuals who perished in earlier “accidents.”
The first of those was Stephen Smith, a gay high schooler who was rumored to be in a romantic relationship with Paul’s older brother Buster. When he was discovered in 2015 lying in the middle of a nondescript road, the victim of fatal blunt force trauma, law enforcement—who were in the habit of watching the Murdaughs’ backs—chalked it up to a hit-and-run. Word soon spread, however, that it might have been a deliberate attack, and in 2021, cops reopened the investigation into Stephen’s death after unearthing new evidence during the course of their inquiry into Paul and Maggie’s murders.
Even shadier was the February 2018 death of housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, who apparently tripped on the family’s dogs while walking up an outdoor staircase to the house—a story that struck most as dubious at best. Alex, who’d taken out a commercial insurance policy on his Moselle estate a month earlier, told Satterfield’s relatives that he’d file a claim against himself in order to receive a hefty settlement for them. Instead, though, he pocketed the eventual $4.3 million payout himself—a fraud in line with the reported millions he stole over the years from clients of his family’s revered law firm, and which led to his disbarment and ouster from the business.
The collapse of Alex’s career came shortly after the murders of Maggie and Paul, which Alex claimed had occurred while he was visiting his ailing parents. Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal picks apart that defense—which also hinged on Alex’s secret Oxy addiction—and touches upon his subsequent attempt to stage his own suicide. That ruse ostensibly involved hiring his drug dealer Curtis Edward Smith to shoot him so that Buster could collect on a life insurance policy. Yet Nason and Furst’s docuseries strongly implies that the incident might have been a scam gone awry, with Alex trying to kill Smith as a means of framing him for Maggie and Paul’s executions, and suffering an unplanned gunshot wound during the fracas.
Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal naturally doesn’t focus too long on Alex’s double-homicide trial, since it’s taking place at this very moment. That’s too bad, because the one thing missing from these proceedings is a conversation about Alex’s potential motive for offing his immediate relatives. (The answer, gleaned from reporting: he sought to use their deaths as a distraction from his financial crimes.) Nonetheless, the show makes a persuasive case that Alex is the byproduct of a boys-club empire that cared only about its own prosperity, and had no compunction about eliminating anyone who posed a threat to its survival.
It remains to be seen whether Nason and Furst revisit their Netflix venture via follow-up installments once a verdict is handed down. But their docuseries is a useful, and severely unflattering, primer on a story that true-crime junkies can continue following right now on the nightly news.