Puppets keep pot boiling


(The Island News)

Most murder trials in South Carolina stay on the docket for years before they’re adjudicated — some longer than five years.

The trial of Alex Murdaugh came just six months after charges were filed.

Six months!

Murder trials in South Carolina don’t typically last longer than a week.

The trial of Alex Murdaugh is now smack dab in the middle of its third week.

And there’s no end in sight …

As of Tuesday afternoon, 36 witnesses have testified in front of the jury — just 14 percent of the more than 250 expected to take the stand.

More than 400 items have been entered into evidence.

One of the six alternate jurors has already dropped out for health reasons.

The attorneys are showing signs of fatigue.

Those watching from home have lost sight of the narrative.

And it’s not clear to anyone what the outcome will be when the jury — which hasn’t been taking notes — finally sits down to consider a miniseries’ worth of evidence and testimony.

This is what a seven-figure defense team can buy you.

Sometimes it seems as if this trial has become a Battle Royale, and to win it, Team Murdaugh’s only goal is to be the last one standing.

Alex Murdaugh can be beaten up, besmirched and be upright solely by virtue of the stacks of money he’s using as crutches … but if he’s able to duck fast enough and dodge the most damning of evidence, he still has a chance at convincing that one juror that he didn’t do this.

If this were any other case it would look much different.

Several times over the past few weeks it’s occurred to me just how little Beaufort County public defenders have to work with … how many questions they don’t get to ask … how much political pressure they can’t apply … how many experts they don’t have the budget to hire … how there are no focus groups to test their arguments … how there is no audience rallying in their favor … how there is no time or money for a public relations plan.

Yes. A public relations plan.

For defense teams, “courts of public opinion” and “trials by media” are decried as “bad” things. You hear it all the time. “My client will NOT be tried in the headlines!”

But some defense teams — specifically the ones who understand how to influence the influencers and who have access to them — actually like headlines.

Headlines outside the court help them amplify their arguments inside the court.

So do puppets.

In the past few days, we have started to see more and more of them pop up on social media — “puppet” accounts with few followers that were created in the last six months or so that seem solely focused on playing down the state’s case against Murdaugh, promoting the idea of Murdaugh’s innocence and attacking the credibility of his critics.

This is not to say that there are not plenty of real people asking legitimate questions about whether the state’s case is too unwieldy, too complex or too circumstantially confusing to survive.

But the puppets keep the cauldron boiling.

They can be useful in politics and therefore they can be useful in “trials of the century.”

They can intentionally distort the facts and confuse the evidence.

They can start a thread on Reddit. They can create a group on Facebook. They can launch a Twitter ar.

They can even influence the way reporters perceive the perception.

The jury has been ordered not to talk about this trial, not to do any research of their own and not to watch, read or listen to any news about the case.

So why would there be any effort at all behind the scenes to shape the way the public is seeing things?

The public is not the jury. The public doesn’t get to decide Alex Murdaugh’s fate.

Alas, just like in politics, the legal powers-that-be are cynical and so they come ready to capitalize on the unfortunate reality that not everyone does as they are told.

Again, all they need is that one juror to hop that curiosity gap.

It’s been interesting to watch this play out — particularly since Monday when we entered a new phase of the trial with Judge Clifton Newman’s decision to allow the jury to hear evidence of the financial pressures Murdaugh was facing on the evening of June 7, 2021.

The financial pressures factor into the motive — the theory about why the state thinks Alex Murdaugh did the unimaginable.

Newman’s decision could be pivotal for the state’s case.

The defense knows this and they fought hard to exclude it.

But now that it’s in … well, prepare yourselves for the puppet show of the century.

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