The Murdaugh Murders: Cognitive Dissonance in Lowcountry
On 02 March 2023, Richard Alexander Murdaugh of Lowcountry, South Carolina, USA was found guilty of killing his 52-year-old wife Margaret and their 22-year-old son Paul in 2021. Evidence from the trial indicates that his wife intended to divorce him. His son Paul was awaiting trial for the wrongful death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who died in a boating accident in 2019 while Paul was driving.
Murdaugh was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Murdaugh's motive is not entirely clear but prosecutors argued that the murders happened in connection with his alleged financial crimes and his desire to deflect from them. He has been charged for 99 financial crimes including fraud, attempted tax evasion, forgery, money laundering and embezzlement; he faces sentencing for these crimes of up to 700 years.
Murdaugh, a high profile lawyer, is currently disbarred from practising law but hails from a long line (four generations) of circuit solicitors, i.e., district attorneys. The Murdaughs' legal practice covered the five counties of Lowcountry including Hampton County, their base of operations. Such is the prominence and power of the Murdaugh Family that the area is referred to as 'Murdaugh County'. Unfortunately, this is not a term of endearment. The Murdaughs have a long-standing reputation of corruption over a period of nearly 100 years. The family infiltrated the judicial system and law enforcement while leading in both criminal proceedings and civil practice through the law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED). The Murdaughs are known manipulators of the entire legal structure for their own means, from interference with investigations to murder.
In recent years, a number of key deaths have been associated with the downfall of Alex Murdaugh. Murdaugh's demise is recounted in two documentaries that recently aired in the UK: 'Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal' released February 2023 on Netflix, and 'The Murdaugh Family Murders' which aired in March 2023 on Sky TV. Together, the documentaries show commentary from a wide range of individuals connected to the story including friends, victims, journalists, investigators, other relevant personnel and residents of Lowcountry. This is a shocking but familiar tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely. However, what is particularly striking is the psychology and social dynamics of those who were close to the Murdaugh Family.
The death of Mallory Beach featured heavily in both documentaries. Anthony Cook, boyfriend of Beach, was in the boat crash with several other friends. Anthony was also the best friend of Paul Murdaugh. He speaks of an idyllic childhood in Hampton, which is a small, rural town. Of Paul, who he has known since childhood, he states, 'I couldn't ask for a better friend.' But the more Anthony talks, a more complex picture of their relationship emerges which a conflicted Anthony struggles to communicate. At one point, Anthony says that Paul always did things that he was uncomfortable with but then stops short mid-sentence and says, 'I'm not going to talk bad about him, you know?' His conflicted demeanour is not dissimilar to that of Morgan Doughty, Paul's then girlfriend. Morgan speaks in one of the documentaries of being with Paul, loving him, and the fun they had while also enduring verbal, emotional and physical abuse during their relationship.
It is notable that no one, other than Anthony, has anything really good to say about Paul in either documentary. Throughout he is described as an arrogant, entitled rich kid who was able to get away with anything because he was a Murdaugh. By all accounts, he had a nasty temper and was considered a puppet master who had friends do his dirty work. Paul was also known to not handle his drink very well. When drunk, an even more belligerent personality revealed itself in the form of an alter ego named Timmy by his friends - an irascible, uncontrollable and abusive character with a peculiar tendency of spreading his fingers straight out and open at the height of intoxication. Based on a police interview with his friends after the boat crash, they all knew Timmy well. And Timmy was driving the boat that night.
Anthony's parents, Keith and Beverley Cook, grew up with the Murdaughs. Beverely described Margeret Murdaugh as a mother who raised her sons to believe that they were better than everyone else and above the law. At one point Beverley also says, 'One thing that we have tried to instil in our children is, you're friends with the Murdaughs but at the same time you have to beware of them because if something goes down, you're gonna be in trouble, not them.'
Connor Cook (no relation) was another friend of Paul and was also in the boat crash, sustaining a severe jaw injury. He became the target of Murdaugh corruption when they sought to blame him for the crash by saying he was driving instead of Paul. Connor's father, Marty Cook (who was featured alongside Christine, his wife and Connor's mother) said he grew up hearing about the Murdaughs and their tendency to kill whoever they wanted at will. Nevertheless, Marty was close friends with Alex Murdaugh growing up. He said that Murdaugh always had to be 'top dog' in everything and that he often had a 'smirk on his face lying through his teeth trying to be nice.' According to Marty, Murdaugh was a scheming manipulator and it was difficult to tell when he was telling the truth. He said other parents kept their kids from associating with the Murdaughs because of their reputation, which was widely known throughout the community. As said at the start of one documentary, 'Whether you knew them or not, they knew you.' Another said, 'Wherever the Murdaughs go, death seems to follow.'
Given the wealth of knowledge about the Murdaughs had by both sets of Cook parents, much of which they accrued from personal experience, their cognitive dissonance is remarkable. Cognitive dissonance - a conflict in beliefs, values, ideas and information resulting in inconsistent conduct and associated discomfort - is a recurrent theme in this tale. The Cook parents knew what The Murdaughs were capable of yet there is no mention in either documentary of any attempt to prohibit their children from associating with Paul. Even while Beverley Cook suspected that Anthony could be a scapegoat in the event of Paul's misbehaviour, it does not appear that she ever discouraged him from being close friends with Paul. l imagine that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the allure of the Murdaughs' wealth and prestige ultimately overrode any parental misgivings. Both the parents and their children likely enjoyed the reputational benefits of association with the Murdaughs, relishing the connection until it backfired on all of them spectacularly.
After all, this is a town where it seems no one else but the Murdaughs had any power. It's possible people believed that connecting with the Murdaughs was the only route to improving one's social standing. I suppose the partners at PMPED felt the same way until, of course, Alex Murdaugh turned the legendary family corruption on them and allegedly stole millions from the firm, virtually destroying its reputation in the process. People tend to ignore the risks if they perceive a benefit from aligning with questionable characters. But the risk is that when you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
In the documentaries, the parents focus all of their attention on the corruption of the Murdaughs. At no point do they acknowledge that their children were underage drinking on the night of the boat crash right along with Paul, although impressively Anthony does admit this. Undoubtedly, that night was not the first time they drank together. It was also not the first time they met Timmy and had to deal with his nasty, volatile behaviour. Their ongoing association with Paul over time would have reinforced his behaviour, teaching him that his powerful family and social position allowed him to behave in deplorable ways and keep friends around him without consequence. It is highly improbable that Paul could have behaved in such an unlikeable way and maintained these friendships without the trappings of his wealth and social standing to make it possible.
Of all participants, Anthony, who appeared in both documentaries, appears to remain dissonant. On the night of the crash, Anthony is overwhelmed with terror and despair on the realisation that his girlfriend was missing. He watches Paul saunter around the crash site smiling, confidently behaving as if he wouldn't be held accountable because, as stated in one documentary, 'The Murdaughs are the justice system.' On seeing a glib Paul, Anthony screams, 'Get that motherf***** there away from me! You f****** smiling like it's f****** funny?! My girlfriend's f****** gone! Hope you rot in f****** hell!' And then to the police Anthony said, 'You all know Alex Murdaugh? That's his son. Good luck.'
However, the rage evident in that scene is oddly seen nowhere else in either documentary. Instead, Anthony goes on to tell a story of an interaction with Paul some time after the crash outside of anyone else's gaze. He says Paul looked him in the eye, apologised and said that he loves him, which Anthony reciprocated. Anthony asserts that this is the moment that he made peace with Paul because he believed Paul felt badly about causing Beach's death. Maybe Paul did feel guilty but there is no indication that he intended to plead guilty at trial and accept responsibility, in which case, how sorry could he have been? Nevertheless, I don't think Anthony allowed himself to consider this reality.
Perhaps Anthony's inability to see Paul for who he was - an apparent narcissist with sociopathic tendencies like his father - is because it would have forced Anthony to look at himself. After all, Anthony chose to be best friends with someone who, in his own words, always did things that made him uncomfortable. He chose to be best friends with someone whose family is rumoured to habitually kill people. He chose to be best friends with someone who belittled and disregarded other people on the basis of his privilege. Anthony has to believe that there was some good in Paul because the presence of good justifies both his loyalty to an unhealthy relationship and
his decision to befriend someone who would later kill his girlfriend.
This sorry saga is a reminder to us all to be honest about the motives for our social interactions. People are often okay with abandoning personal morals and conforming to the norms of a group because we like the validation of social acceptance. The problem is that the loss of critical thinking and individual choice often has wider consequences. According to the police interview on the night of the crash, no one but Paul wanted to stop off for extra drinks before heading home on the boat. None of them wanted Paul to drive the boat. But since the long-established social dynamic of that group was of Paul as puppet master and everyone else falling in line, not one person that night refused to get on the boat, chose to call their parents or found alternative means of travel. They literally all risked their lives to adhere to the social norm of their group. And if just one person thought for themselves, perhaps Beach would still be alive. If the Murdaugh story teaches us anything, it shows us how vulnerable we are to the power of social influence and how necessary it is to have integrity in order to withstand malignant social pressures.
This story also reminds us of the importance of justice. After nearly a century of abusing its influence, the Murdaugh dynasty has fallen. For many, this is long overdue. While the deaths of Margaret and Paul are tragic, many are satisfied to see destruction befall those who were part of a powerful system that destroyed others. I'm sure Margaret and Paul felt their luck would never run out. But fate and death are not respecters of persons. No doubt Alex Murdaugh has time to consider this reality while he spends the rest of his life behind bars.
The concept of justice relies on the concept of good and evil. We can only believe that things must be made right if we believe that things can go wrong. But in a world where right and wrong are increasingly subjective, and in some cases completely reversed, it will be harder for justice to be properly executed. The issue of justice highlights the weakness of the postmodernist view that truth is subjective and that right/wrong is determined by what makes someone 'happy'. Funnily enough, if one of these people loses a loved one to murder, the murderer's 'happiness' never seems to matter.