By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) - The lead prosecutor in the case against Richard "Alex" Murdaugh said the disbarred South Carolina attorney lied about his whereabouts on the night his wife and son were murdered, attacking his credibility as the high-profile trial got underway on Wednesday.
In his opening statement, Murdaugh's lawyer painted a vastly different portrayal of his client, arguing that he had no reason to murder his wife, Maggie, 52, and 22-year-old son Paul, who were shot to death on the family's property on June 7, 2021.
"He didn't do it. He didn't kill - butcher - his son and wife," Dick Harpootlian said in defense of Murdaugh, 54, who wiped away tears as his lawyer recounted in grisly detail the pair of shotgun blasts that ended Paul's life.
The gases from the second shot "literally exploded his head like a watermelon hit with a sledgehammer," Harpootlian told the jury of eight women and four men seated earlier on Wednesday. "His brain exploded out of his head."
Murdaugh, the scion of an influential South Carolina legal family, was indicted by a grand jury in July on two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon in connection with the shootings at dog kennels on the family's estate.
Deciding against the death penalty, state prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Creighton Waters, the lead prosecutor, said cellphone evidence would show Murdaugh was at the kennels right before his wife and son were fatally shot at close range, contradicting what he had told others in the wake of the incident.
"He was there just minutes before - with Maggie and Paul -- just minutes before their cellphones went silent forever and ever," Waters said in his opening statement. "Credibility, ladies and gentlemen, credibility."
The trial is taking place at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, a sleepy, rural town 50 miles west of Charleston in a low-lying region of South Carolina over which the Murdaugh family has wielded immense judicial and political power.
From 1920 to 2006, members of the family served as the leading prosecutor for a five-county district including Colleton. Prior to his recent troubles, Murdaugh was a prominent personal injury attorney in the state.
Murdaugh also faces separate prosecution on dozens of financial and drug-related crimes, including an alleged scheme to have himself killed so that his older son, Buster, could collect a $10 million insurance payout. He has also been accused of stealing millions from clients and his former law firm.
Prosecutors have said Murdaugh killed his wife and child to generate sympathy and distract from his financial crimes. Waters told the jury they would hear how his life was unravelling like a "perfect storm" that culminated in the murders.
"Listen to that gathering storm that all came to a head on June 7, 2021. The day, the evidence will show, he killed Maggie and Paul," Waters said.
While acknowledging that his case would hinge on circumstantial evidence, Waters said the prosecution would be able to prove that only Murdaugh could have murdered his wife and son. Among its evidence, Waters said Murdaugh brought a raincoat with gunshot residue on it to his mother's home.
Harpootlian said there were no eyewitnesses or fingerprint or blood evidence connecting Murdaugh to the shootings.
"There's no forensics tying him to the murder," he said.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)