Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to life in South Carolina on Friday for the 2021 murder of his wife and son. Observers claim Murdaugh, who is white, was able to avoid the death penalty because of his wealth, race and family background, drawn from a line of lawyers and prosecutors who presided over generations in Hampton County.
“It is hard to ignore the fact that the decision was yet another example of racial and class privilege in the death penalty system,” Austin Sarat, a death penalty expert and law professor at Amherst College, wrote in USA today.
Describing death row, Professor Sarat noted, “Throughout U.S. history, it’s been a place heavily populated by poor black men.”
In South Carolina, a state with a population that is two-thirds white, half of the 35 people on death row are black.
During Murdaugh’s sentencing, Judge Clifton Newman pointed to similar ironies.
“Over the past century, your family — including you — have prosecuted people here in this courtroom, and many have received the death penalty — probably for lesser conduct,” Judge Newman said last week, explaining how Statutory Murdaugh could have received the death penalty if the prosecutors had requested.
“We have a woman who was murdered, a son who was brutally murdered, a lawyer – someone from a respected family who has controlled justice in this community for more than a century – a person whose grandfather’s portrait is in the back the courthouse – which I had to have removed to make sure there was a fair trial,” he continued, adding: “It is also deeply troubling, Mr. Murdaugh, because as a member of the legal community you has practiced as a lawyer , and we have seen each other on several occasions over the years.
For nearly a century, three members of the Murdaugh family have sought the death penalty against more than 30 people Mail and courier of Charleston reports.
State officials voted against the death penalty in Murdaugh’s case last year.
Alan Wilson, the attorney general of South Carolina, told me The New York Times he made the call based on practical considerations, as the search for death would be more expensive and complicated, and might not lead to an actual execution for several decades, if at all. (South Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2011, in part due to problems obtaining lethal injection drugs.)
“There are so many factors to consider,” Wilson said. “We felt like this case is already complicated enough.”
Some argued that Murdaugh had advantages other than the disproportionately black, often economically disadvantaged people who usually end up on death row.
One of Murdaugh’s lawyers is Dick Harpootlian, a senator and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In South Carolina, judges are not elected, but appointed by state legislatures.
“Harpootlian’s edge is his built-in advantage with the judges,” a prominent Charleston attorney told the New Yorker in January.
If The independent has reported, an overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that the death penalty is disproportionately used against people of color, the poor, and is often a result of these groups facing discriminatory policing or poor legal representation.
The independent and the non-profit organization Initiative Responsible Business for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty – with The Independent being the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives such as Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and make a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.