‘Says it all’: Experts react to Buster Murdaugh’s facepalm during father’s testimony in double murder trial
Expelled attorney and accused murderer Alex Murdaugh gave the jury a rare perspective in his double murder trial when he testified in his defense last week. But the long, day-long recitation of his admitted lies, admitted financial crimes, and the horrifying scene the defendant described upon finding the slain bodies of his wife and youngest son also took its toll on his eldest son.
Law&Crime polled several legal experts on their reaction to Buster Murdaugh’s response to his father’s testimony when lead prosecutor Creighton Waters conducted an intense and grueling cross-examination.
“Buster’s mother and brother were brutally murdered, and the state of South Carolina has framed his father for those murders,” Robert Rikard, a South Carolina-based attorney who previously worked with Dick Harpootlian, told Law&Crime. “Buster sat in the courtroom for weeks supporting his father and heard horrifying testimonies about the deaths of his mother and brother. He has overseen the state’s attempt to convince a jury that his father is guilty of these brutal murders. Regardless of what anyone believes about Alex Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence, this tragedy has real implications for his son, and you can see that in this photo of Buster hearing his father’s testimony. Imagine how hard it is for him when his mother and brother have been murdered and his father is sitting there accused of these horrific crimes.”
“It appears Buster knows all about his father’s testimony, but the gory details of the murders will likely weigh on him,” Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Rachel Fiset said in an email. “He was a fervent supporter of his father throughout the case and it was probably difficult for him to hear some of the issues raised by his father’s testimony – including the fact that on the night of the murders his father spoke about his whereabouts lied. Despite this, he seems to offer his father his full support.”
Finally, on Friday, Alex Murdaugh was questioned by the state about the night of the murder. During that exchange, Waters accused the defendant of making up a “new story” solely for the benefit of the jury – after which the defendant again admitted that he had previously and repeatedly lied about his whereabouts on that fatal night.
“One can only imagine the trauma this young man is going through watching his father testify,” Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Joshua Ritter told Law&Crime. “Apart from the brutal details of the deaths of his mother and brother, he also witnesses the heroic figure he believed his father to be unraveled before his eyes. Assuming he believes his father is innocent of the murders, he must ask himself the same question we all have: Why would his father lie about the most important details of that night?
Body language expert Dr. Carole Lieberman had an even more scathing look at Buster Murdaugh’s reaction.
“I looked at Murdaugh’s statement,” she said in an email. “Buster’s body language says it all. Not only was Murdaugh’s testimony embarrassing for him and the family, it will likely lead to a guilty verdict. Buster covered his face because he didn’t want to see that train wreck. Also, Murdaugh tried to make it clear that he loved “Paw Paw” (and Maggie) so he could never have murdered her. By doing so, Murdaugh made it seem like Buster didn’t exist or was, at best, an afterthought.”
Perhaps the bigger question remains how the jury likely reacted to the sight of the defendant’s surviving son burying his head.
“From the photos I saw of Buster Murdaugh in the courtroom face down in his palms, that can’t possibly be good for the jury,” said Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Matthew Barhoma. “When the jury sees Alex Murdaugh’s own son holding his face in his hands, it seems like he doesn’t believe what Alex said, so why would they? Ultimately, it doesn’t look good and confirms exactly what the problem was when Alex Murdaugh took the stand to begin with — that he wouldn’t look sane or competent, or at least give the appearance of what could very likely be lies. His feelings are everywhere. We’ve seen him cry and sob, we’ve seen him laugh, tears and snot and everything. It can’t possibly look good for a jury, and I can’t imagine that being a good backdrop for a courtroom.”
SEE ALSO: ‘Terrible Move’: Defense Attorneys Criticize Alex Murdaugh’s Opinion on His Defense
“Even if the proceedings don’t go well, if you make things appear okay, that carries weight with the jury, who might think that if everyone seems okay, it’s okay,” Barhoma added. “But Buster’s reaction gives the impression that things are not right and the jury will notice.”
Ross Suter, senior vice president at Magna Legal Services, a jury consulting firm, said in an email he doubted Buster Murdaugh’s response to his father’s testimony would do much.
“Not surprisingly, Buster Murdaugh was emotional during his father’s testimony,” Suter said. “Judges are often looking for an emotional response from the gallery that draws attention. While there might have been one or two people who expected a specific response from Buster in this case, the jury was most likely focused on questioning his father. It is a unique situation for a defendant to testify on his or her own behalf, and at that pivotal moment, the jury assessed Alex Murdaugh’s credibility, likability and body language. They had already made decisions about Buster’s credibility based on his previous testimonies, so this is really the moment for the jury to make a decision on Alex and whether to send him to prison for the rest of his life.”
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