ORLANDO, Fla. (Court TV) — Court TV hosted a panel discussion with Creighton Waters at CrimeCon in Orlando last month. Waters is the man who successfully prosecuted Alex Murdaugh in a South Carolina courtroom in March.
Waters told Court TV anchor Julie Grant that, for him, one of the trial’s most defining moments was his opening statement, “because there was so much pressure and stress building up to this.”
Waters used a Super Bowl analogy, saying, “There’s so much pressure unlike any other game you’ve been in, but when you run your first play, all of a sudden it’s just what you’re used to, and what you know how to do. And so, getting that opening statement out of the way, that was huge.”
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THE GATHERING STORM
The theme for Waters’ prosecution, “The Gathering Storm,” began to take shape while creating a PowerPoint presentation for his opening. He even included some storm clip art and a still from the George Clooney hit film, “The Perfect Storm.”
“We saw this slow burn, this gathering storm… just all coming to a head on June 7th. It just seemed to make sense, because it was really the only way to understand what we were alleging about this man: who he was, and what was important to him, and what all was coming to a head on June 7th.”
Court TV Crime and Justice Correspondent Matt Johnson, who co-moderated the panel with Grant, noticed a real-life parallel.
“It was raining the night Maggie and Paul were killed,” said Johnson, “it rained at the end of your prosecution case. It was kind of poetic.”
The “little boat, big wave” analogy wasn’t lost on people, as the whole saga had a David and Goliath vibe from the start. Grant pointed out that Waters rose to the occasion and took down a man, who was a giant in the South.
Waters explained that his role was a bit different from other prosecutors in the U.S. because he’s an investigator, as well as a prosecutor. South Carolina’s prosecutors are known as solicitors, and it just so happened that the Murdaugh family controlled the solicitors’ offices for generations.
Waters works for the state attorney general’s office, so cases don’t come to him automatically. His team works closely with law enforcement on the front end in cases dealing with things like narcotics trafficking, public corruption, complex white-collar offenses and homicide.
“We’re used to having the resources and time to do those deep dives and put together complex stories like this,” Waters explained, “so when this thing happened, I think at one point in one hearing I said: This is not a white collar case that also has a murder in it, this is a white collar case that culminated in murder.”
Waters and his colleagues have convicted lieutenant governors, the speaker of the house, state senators, sheriffs, school officials and transportation officials, so taking on people who were previously thought to be untouchable was not new territory for Waters.
What Waters did find difficult was the task of making sure the jury got a sense of the murder victims: Murdaugh’s wife and youngest son.
“This is about Maggie and Paul,” he said, “and obviously with that complicated family dynamic, it was more difficult to do than any other case I’ve done.”
That “complicated family dynamic” centered on the fact that the grieving husband/father who should have been the state’s first witness was, in fact, the defendant who stood accused of gunning down his wife and son.
NO TEARS, A LOT OF SNOT
Another stressful element of the six-week trial for Waters was the extraordinary task of “making sure that as soon as one witness came down off the stand, we were calling another witness.”
One of those witnesses was Alex Murdaugh himself.
“He loved to stare me down with his big eyes,” said Waters. “He would stare me down every chance he had. And, of course, every time we took a break, which was multiple times a day, he would have to come walking right past me. … He would stare me down, but it didn’t bother me at all. I mean, if we were gonna be intimidated, now’s the wrong time, right? Ya know, we were on trial, so we were not intimidated. I would always give a little smile. We were not gonna be deterred at putting on this case.”
Waters also stated that while he saw no tears when Murdaugh sobbed on the stand, “there was a lot of snot.”
Waters also spoke about his strategy in his cross-examination of Murdaugh. He felt that his best tactic was what’s known as a constructive cross, where instead of asking yes or no questions, Waters believed the most effective tactic would be to just get Murdaugh talking.
“I wanted him to keep trying to perfect his story and I wanted the jury to watch that in real time. I wanted to have those awkward pauses because he couldn’t stand it, and he would start talking.”
Waters believes that Murdaugh took the stand in his own defense because he was convinced that it was community — his family had dominated the county for so long, “and he really felt that he could give one last closing argument to that jury.”
‘FAMILY ANNIHILATOR’ MOMENT ON CROSS
The now-iconic “family annihilator” moment on cross came about because, Waters explained, Murdaugh had already denied killing Maggie and Paul numerous times, so he didn’t just want to come out and ask him yet again.
The powerful back and forth went as follows:
WATERS: “Mr. Murdaugh, are you a family annihilator?”
MURDAUGH: “A family annihilator? You mean, like, did I shoot my wife and my son? No. I would never hurt Maggie Murdaugh. I would never hurt Paul Murdaugh. Under any circumstances.”
WATERS: “You say that.”
MURDAUGH: “Excuse me?”
WATERS: “You say that, but you lied to Maggie, didn’t you?”
MURDAUGH: “I did lie to Maggie.”
WATERS: “You lied to Paul?”
Waters explained that he specifically used the term “annihilator” because “there is a recognized and documented pathology out there. It’s usually a person in their 50s, a white male who is facing financial ruin…facing those kinds of things, and they respond with a form of violence.”
It was on the stand that Murdaugh admitted he lied about being at the murder scene moments before the killings.
“The first time any of us ever heard his claim about what really happened that night was when he took the stand,” said Waters, “which was the first conversation I’d ever had with the man in my entire life.”
Waters also noted that many people still can’t believe Murdaugh could kill his own child. He said that while it’s hard to understand, Paul’s boat crash case threatened to unravel the family legacy.
At the time of his death, Paul was facing 25 years in prison for boating under the influence causing death.
“That civil boat case was threatening to expose his books,” explained Waters, “which, the second that happened, he was going to be exposed to, allegedly, being a crook and losing everything. And then all of those things were coming to a head on June 7th.”
THE LIGHT SIDE OF DARKNESS
As dark as the trial was, there were a few light-hearted moments.
Another bright spot for Waters was spending time with delightful staff at the Hampton Inn in Walterboro, S.C., who offered him a nice reprieve from the constant pressures of the case.
“Miss Darlene and Miss Carla were the highlight of my day,” said Waters. “They were so cheerful.”
Miss Darlene wanted to make Waters a Belgian waffle every day but between working long hours and trying to get as much protein as possible, Waters almost always turned down Miss. Darlene’s generous waffle offer.
On the rare occasion that Waters agreed to have a waffle, Miss Darlene was overjoyed.
“She was so happy she would do a little dance. She would make us a waffle. And she would put strawberries on it. And she was drizzled like chocolate on it like it was in a high-end restaurant or something like that.”
Waters also told a story about how the courthouse’s sound system wasn’t working, so they hooked up a Fender (yes, the guitar company) PA. That wasn’t enough because the defense needed a speaker as well, so they went to Best Buy and got a $40 karaoke machine, rigged it all together and that was what was running the sound through the whole trial.
When Waters would call his first witness in the mornings, he would sometimes forget that the karaoke machine had a built-in light show.
During verdict watch, Waters and his team waited in the courtroom, and the karaoke machine offered a welcome escape from the outside world. No, they didn’t sing, he insisted, but they did use it to play music.
“I’ll never forget: Fleetwood Mac was playing at one point,” said Waters.