Why America is obsessed with the Alex Murdaugh murder trial
The five-week trial of Alex Murdaugh has dominated headlines and cable news channels, and the murders have been the subject of podcasts and even two documentaries.
It comes amid a frenzy of interest in true crime media, that can be both incredibly popular and also problematic.
Who is he? A South Carolina jury on Thursday evening found the prominent attorney guilty in the deaths of his wife and son, Maggie and Paul, who were killed in June 2021.
- The deaths in one of the most prominent families in the state shocked their community, and prompted inquiries into the financial and personal woes of Alex Murdaugh.
- The trial was drawn out over more than a month and included testimony from more than 70 witnesses, from both the prosecution and the defense.
- The judge in the case, Clifton Newman, said the evidence of guilt in the case was "overwhelming" and he threw out a defense request to declare a mistrial.
What's the big deal? The murders themselves have very real and deeply painful implications. It also became a story that gripped people everywhere, in part because of the wide platform it received.
- Testimonies were broadcast live from inside the courtroom, and the trial has been a regular fixture on cable news.
- Alongside the podcasts about the murders, two documentary series — on Netflix and HBO Max — have driven interest in the case.
- The story of the Murdaugh family plays into the proliferation of true crime as media, a phenomenon that has been argued to be an exploitative form of entertainment that could be harmful to everyone involved.
Want to learn more? Listen to the Consider This episode on why people are drawn to true crime
Why is America so obsessed with this story? To explore this question, we asked Neal Baer, a former long-running executive producer on the enormously successful crime show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. In that role he consulted with experts and researchers to understand the issues that were worrying people, and what they wanted to understand from this genre. This is his analysis.
On the allure of the Murdaugh case:
We're drawn to it. And I think what's really interesting is that we also want justice.
In this case, the victims are dead, but we still want to seek some kind of justice. These are cases of human behavior that go way, way, way to the nth degree that we don't experience in our own lives every day. We're drawn to these kinds of people and what makes them tick. What made them do it?
On whether the true crime obsession is uniquely American:
It's of interest everywhere. And I think that's because, as people, we're interested in other people's behavior, and the more far fetched it seems, or the more grandiose or scary, the more we're drawn to it, because I think there's parts of us that may identify with those characters, when we get enraged, or we feel betrayed, yet, hopefully, we won't go as far as these characters.
So there's some kind of connection, there's a fascination because maybe we see ourselves in these characters ... we may see ourselves being so frightened, so forced to make some decisions, so trapped, that we don't know what we would do. And most of us, I hope, wouldn't go so far as to murder our families ... But we can identify with it because we've all been pushed into the corner.
On why the true crime genre has exploded, and if it has desensitized us to the human aspect of these cases:
I think people like to have endings and they like to have justice. I think that's been a big, big selling point for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, that we get the bad guys. And there aren't too many podcasts where the bad guy gets away, and we never find them. Those are very rare.
I do think that there is probably a desensitization that happens when we see so much crime, maybe it makes us feel in some way safer, that we can be listening to it within the safety of our own homes. But, you know, on the other hand, we don't know who's carrying a gun in many places now in the United States. So it's a very scary place to be.
So it's kind of a catch-22 we're getting more and more, because I think there's more and more fear, so we look to these programs to give us some sustenance and some hope and yet, in and of themselves, they probably promote more fear.
So, what now?
- Murdaugh was sentenced to two life terms on Friday.
- True crime media like books, podcasts and TV shows continue to be a multimillion-dollar industry.
- Read about how the jury found Murdaugh guilty
- Listen to a conversation about whether true crime as media is ethical