Is convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh a family annhilator? Experts weigh in. | Murdaugh News

WALTERBORO — When Creighton Waters asked Alex Murdaugh whether the defendant considered himself a family annihilator, the prosecutor said he’d hoped it would provoke a reaction.

It was a different way of asking Murdaugh the ultimate question: Did the once-respected Hampton trial attorney brutally gun down his wife and youngest son?

A family annihilator, or a perpetrator of familicide, is someone who kills their intimate partner and at least one child. 

It’s a buzzword for armchair detectives and criminologists alike, and it describes a subtype of family murder that’s a rare occurrence but garners significant attention when it happens. 

Experts say a better understanding of the commonalities and psychological underpinnings of these cases could help explain the inexplicable, identify risk factors and maybe even prevent them.

Through six grueling weeks of a highly publicized murder trial, Waters and his team sought to paint Murdaugh as a man who ultimately crumbled under the weight of compounding pressures.

They argued a raging opioid addiction, a pending civil lawsuit, mounting debt and looming criminal charges from years of theft all threatened to strip away what the 54-year-old held most dear: the Murdaugh family’s powerful legacy.

The June 2021 double-murder of Maggie, 52, and 22-year-old Paul constitutes familicide, the killing of multiple family members, experts agree.

A jury on March 2 found Murdaugh guilty of carrying out those crimes. But neatly tucking the case into a specific type of familicide, and casting the defendant as a family annihilator, proves more difficult.

Family annihilators

Between 2000 and 2009, the U.S. saw about 23 cases of familicide per year, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Violence.

The vast majority were carried out by wealthy, middle-aged White men who suffered some type of mental illness. They often didn’t have criminal records, though financial difficulties and relationship problems were prevalent.

Firearms were the most commonly used weapon, reflecting a broader trend among homicides in the U.S. In more than half the cases, the killer ultimately committed suicide.

Experts have identified several profiles of the family annihilator, as well as various motives.

They can generally be broken down into two categories. Hostile annihilators commit murder by proxy, killing their family members out of anger and revenge often directed at the intimate partner. A history of domestic violence is more likely in these cases.

Pseudo-altruistic annihilators, on the other hand, aim to “protect” their family from a fate the killer deems worse than death. Experts agreed the Murdaugh case is more closely aligned with this type, though suicide is almost always the final act. (Prosecutors presented no evidence Murdaugh attempted to take his own life after shooting Maggie and Paul, though he confessed to unsuccessfully plotting his own death a few months later to collect on insurance money for his remaining son.)

Both types of perpetrators can be characterized by a need of staying in control when the family unit is threatened by outside forces, such as relationship or financial problems, researchers found.

And in almost every case, experts argue, the familicide is premeditated by a man whose identity is intrinsic to his masculinity and being the sole provider for his family members.

The “perfect family” image becomes an extension of the killer, and impending failure causes him to act in total desperation: If there is no family, there can be no failure, said Curtis Holland, a sociologist and professor at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.

Many high-profile familicide cases reflect these ideas. Steven Sueppel, a former bank vice president and well-liked member of a prominent Iowa City family, killed his wife and four children in March 2008 before taking his own life, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A federal grand jury had indicted him the previous month on charges he embezzled nearly $560,000 from his employer over a seven-year period. Sueppel initially told FBI investigators he’d taken the money to fund a cocaine habit, but later admitted to making up this story, a CBS News report states.

Authorities believe the stolen cash instead went to maintaining his family’s comfortable, though not extravagant, lifestyle.

Later that same year, British millionaire Christopher Foster fatally shot his wife and daughter at their Maesbrook, England, estate. He also killed the family’s pet horses and dogs before lighting their home on fire and committing suicide.

Foster’s friends described the family as ordinary and loving. But his death revealed a man who’d recently lost his company and was bankrupt, some £4 million in debt. 

Not a perfect fit

Both Holland and forensic psychologist Marieke Liem agree the Murdaugh double-murder case doesn’t perfectly fit with others that are pseudo-altruistically motivated.

The perpetrator’s children are often young, given they rely more on their parents, said Liem, who’s also a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The mean age of child victims was between 7 and 12 years, one study found. At 22, Paul was much older.

The fact Murdaugh’s other son, Buster, wasn’t victimized is “exceptional,” Liem said. The lack of a suicide attempt is another anomaly, the experts said.

A pseudo-altruistic annihilator kills as a sort of suicide by proxy. Because they often view their family members as an extension of themselves, they believe if they die, there is no life left for the family, Liem said.

The similarities, however, are striking. Murdaugh, a well-off and respected trial attorney, had no criminal record at the time of the slayings. A slew of his friends and family members repeatedly testified Murdaugh had wonderful, loving relationships with his wife and two sons.

The close-knit unit seemed to enjoy each others’ company. They’d recently celebrated Murdaugh’s birthday at their Edisto Beach house; father and son rode around the family’s sprawling hunting property mere hours before the slayings.

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A family photo of Buster, Paul, Maggie and Alex is shown during the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro on March 2, 2023. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier

But it’s a mistake to think about these cases as “out of the blue” occurrences, carried out by people who are mentally resilient and in a good place, Liem said.

Their decision to kill is often made well before the actual event, based on a long-term accumulation of stressors, she explained. Once the perpetrator has made up their mind, they begin to believe death is the only solution. It’s just a matter of executing.  

Mounting pressure

Murdaugh was in deep financial trouble and faced a loss of status. He likely saw himself as the protagonist of his family unit, responsible for their well-being.

Waters worked to draw out these themes when Murdaugh took the stand Feb. 23 and 24 in his own defense. Murdaugh agreed with the prosecutor that he was the primary breadwinner for his immediate family.

“I was the source of income for Maggie, Buster and Paul,” he testified.

And Murdaugh agreed he was having “financial issues” in June 2021 like he’d had “many times in the past,” ultimately admitting to a broad range of alleged theft totaling some $8.7 million over a 10-year period. A Palmetto State Bank official also testified Murdaugh had about $3.5 million worth of outstanding loans at the time of the killings.

Murdaugh said he’d spent much of his fortune on an addiction to prescription painkillers that spanned two decades. Prosecutors accused Murdaugh of using the stolen money in part to finance his extravagant lifestyle.

The Murdaughs at one point owned three homes, a collection of sea islands along South Carolina’s coast, late-model cars and an extensive gun collection.

Marian Proctor, Maggie’s older sister and closest friend, testified Feb. 14 Maggie never believed money to be an issue for the family. The Murdaughs lived a “comfortable life,” but it wasn’t lavish, she said.

Prosecutors say their life of luxury and privilege was threatened in the wake of a 2019 boat crash. Paul was charged with drunkenly driving the family’s boat when it crashed into a Beaufort County bridge piling, killing 19-year-old Mallory Beach and injuring several other passengers.

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Defense attorney Phillip Barber cross-examines witness Mark Tinsley, Allendale attorney, in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Feb. 6, 2023. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier

Beach’s family soon filed a wrongful death lawsuit, naming Murdaugh and his oldest son among the defendants. The crash was a “devastating blow” to Maggie and her family, Proctor said. (Paul had reportedly used Buster’s ID to buy alcohol that night before the crash).

Mark Tinsley, an attorney representing the Beaches, testified he was seeking a hefty payout from the Murdaughs, whom he perceived as wealthy. 

Paul, described throughout the trial as a “sweet” person who was misrepresented in the media, faced a maximum of 55 years in state prison if convicted on each of the three counts he was charged with.

Murdaugh must have realized all of this — the addiction, thefts, debt and boat crash — endangered the family name, prosecutors argued. 

His great-grandfather, grandfather and father had reigned over the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office for nearly a century, serving consecutive terms as the chief prosecutor of five rural Lowcountry counties.

The disgraced trial attorney acknowledged much of the region had viewed his family as “prominent.”

“I think my family was very well thought of, I think my family was respected,” Murdaugh testified Feb. 23. “I think my family helped a lot of people.”

And when faced with this legacy’s undoing, Murdaugh chose violence, Waters suggested.

“Shame for you is an extraordinary provocation to you, isn’t it, Mr. Murdaugh,” the prosecutor asked.

Murdaugh agreed he doesn’t “like to be shamed,” but it’s not his “biggest concern.”

‘Common sense’

The stressors converging on Murdaugh the day he killed his wife and son were “unique and extreme,” given the “supreme importance” of status and his family’s legacy, Waters told The Post and Courier. 

But there are “common-sense themes” within the case that Waters wanted to identify for jurors to help explain possible reasons Murdaugh might’ve committed such heinous crimes, he explained.

“We all deal with pressures in our lives,” Waters said. 

Shame, for instance, can cause someone to lash out: “That’s obviously something that many people can understand. They don’t react the way Alex Murdaugh did, but they understand that,” he said.

Waters said his team identified these “common-sense factors” — many of which seem to reflect those of family annihilators — as they formed a better understanding of Murdaugh while preparing for trial.

It’s common for prosecutors to speak with criminologists, psychologists and other experts in the field to identify what’s worthy of exploring in a cross-examination or closing argument, he said. 

Waters emphasized it’s not his job to diagnose Murdaugh with any type of psychological condition. Prosecutors generally aren’t allowed in a case like Murdaugh’s to call a psychologist to the stand to opine about a condition the defendant may or may not have, especially if they haven’t personally treated them.

And at the end of the day, it’s all speculation. No one will ever know what was going through Murdaugh’s mind the very moment he decided to kill his wife and son, unless he decides to speak, Waters said.

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Prosecutor Creighton Waters questions Alex Murdaugh during Murdaugh’s double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro on Feb. 24, 2023. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

But Murdaugh’s response to the prosecutor’s ultimate question — whether he is a family annihilator — did elicit a specific reaction.

Murdaugh paused for a moment, his brow furrowing: “A family annihilator? You mean like, did I shoot my wife and my son?”

“Yes,” Waters replied.

“No. I would never hurt Maggie Murdaugh. I would never hurt Paul Murdaugh,” the defendant said, ire coating his words. “Under any circumstances.”

Waters reflected on the exchange weeks later, evoking a popular Bible verse: “The eyes are the window to the soul.”

Murdaugh’s pair of green irises briefly flicked to the jury box before landing back on the prosecutor, staring him down.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental-health crisis, call the 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to speak with a trained listener.

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