While I generally enjoy watching lawyer movies and television shows, I’m rarely up on the latest ones, because of work and family related activities. One of the silver linings of the COVID shutdown was being able to spend more time catching up with shows and movies that I missed when first aired. Unfortunately, once I developed the habit of channel surfing on cable and streaming services, I’ve found it hard to get rid of.
The problem with most of these shows is how little they resemble the twists and turns of real-life trial practice. That was not the case with my most recent viewing experience, recommended by a lawyer friend when I told her about my binge-watching. She replied that she couldn’t get away from the airing of the trial against Alex Murdaugh for the death of his wife and son. Almost every time we talked, she’d describe how amazed she was that Murdaugh had been able to get away with stealing from his clients and law partners for so long (spoiler alert, he created a dummy company called “Forge,” that he would instruct insurance companies to write settlement checks payable to, giving him immediate access to the funds without the necessity of passing them through his law firm’s trust account.)
I decided to take a look. To my surprise, I found I couldn’t stop. While it showed the tedium of a real trial, the drama of the underlying story was compelling. I think even if it had not been quite as sensational, I would have been impressed with the tenaciousness of the prosecutors in uncovering and presenting the evidence. It was also interesting from a professional perspective to see how this extremely successful law firm handled its cases and financial affairs yet was so easily victimized by Murdaugh.
One example of how the tenacity of the prosecution paid off, it proved that Murdaugh’s initial claim to investigators that he had not been at the scene of the crime before he discovered his dead wife and son was false, when they were able to unlock the son’s cell phone and found a video of his father at the scene earlier that day. Amazingly, in the face of this and the overwhelming evidence of his financial crimes, Murdaugh chose to testify in his own defense, admitting his lies but attempting to excuse them by blaming his oxycodone addiction, and his “grief.”
As I watched, I felt both anger and sadness about the lives he had ruined, but also, that he had contributed so shamelessly to the distrust in which so many hold the legal profession. While lawyers are not unique in that regard, we perhaps attract more than other professions because what we do is not usually the subject of public attention except when things go wrong. I hope, if you follow this case, you take away from it what I did— that the system does work, that the lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, judge, and the jury, are decent people, hoping to contribute to a just result. The jury took less than three hours to reach a guilty verdict after six weeks of trial, and the judge ordered two sentences of life in prison without parole.
I also thought about the lawyers I have worked with over the years who have excelled in their profession and in their personal and community lives. My friend John Kenison, who wrote last month’s column in this newspaper is one. So also, was my friend Ralph Cloar of Little Rock Arkansas, whose death was memorialized the other day by the American Association for Justice. The Executive Director wrote, “He led with kindness, generosity, and a humble spirit, chairing [many committees] He was the recipient of AAJ’s Distinguished Service Award, Lifetime Achievement Award, and Leonard Ring Champion of Justice Award. And law was his second career. After attending both the University of Arkansas and Ouachita Baptist University—and serving in the U.S. Army—Ralph pursued a career as an accountant. After many successful years, he enrolled in night classes at the old University of Arkansas Law School, Little Rock Division, and in 1974 received his law degree.”
His wife of 57 years, and his daughter, predeceased him. I first met him when he came to New Hampshire to help raise money for our political action committee. We stayed friends, and when our son Clifford died, he was among the first to reach out and comfort me, sharing with me how, upon the death of his daughter in a car accident, his church had sustained him. That has been true for our family as well, but it is also true that the lawyer community has supported us and, despite the Alex Murdaughs in this world, it is a community I am proud to be a part of.