Murdaugh prosecutor, defense lawyers now stars of true crime

ATTORNEY

Seen on a giant screen before an audience of some 2,000, lead Alex Murdaugh prosecutor Creighton Waters makes a point Saturday, Sept. 24, 2023, at the annual CrimeCon convention in Orlando.

Seen on a giant screen before an audience of some 2,000, lead Alex Murdaugh prosecutor Creighton Waters makes a point Saturday, Sept. 24, 2023, at the annual CrimeCon convention in Orlando.

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Last year at this time few outside South Carolina knew the names of the key lawyers in the Alex Murdaugh murder saga.

But due to national television coverage of the six-week Murdaugh murder trial last winter, prosecutor Creighton Waters of the S.C. Attorney General’s office and defense attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin have transcended the courtroom, catapulted into the public eye and become the newest stars in the dark galaxy of American true crime.

The crime in question, of course, is the still-mysterious and ultra-violent killings of Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and son Paul on the family’s remote 1,770-acre estate in rural Colleton County, South Carolina, on June 6, 2021. The two death weapons — a shotgun and an assault rifle — have never been found.

At Murdaugh’s trial, Waters and his team of prosecutors and investigators used reams of circumstantial evidence to convince a jury of his guilt. Murdaugh, 55, is now serving two life without parole sentences. Harpootlian and Griffin, vanquished in the courtroom, are appealing and contend he is innocent.

On Saturday afternoon, at this year’s annual CrimeCon conference in Orlando, more than 2,000 attended a panel called “The Fall of a Southern Giant: Inside the Prosecution of Alex Murdaugh,” held in a huge auditorium with Waters as the only speaker. Two Court TV journalists, Julie Grant and Matt Johnson, moderated. Waters’ remarks were frequently applauded. Giant television screens brought his image home to the far reaches of the great hall.

Waters told the audience he was not there to advocate a position, but wanted to explain his thinking about some parts of the trial and tell anecdotes about his team and “how we survived that six weeks.” He also said people should not forget this this was a terrible tragedy and “we have to remember what the basis for this is.”

“Ultimately, our job is to do justice,” Waters said.

Harpootlian and Griffin appeared later, on a separate panel in the same hall with ABC correspondent Eva Pilgrim doing the questioning. It attracted a slightly more skeptical crowd of some 1,300-plus.

In an hourlong session, they contended the Murdaughs were a loving family, the state’s case was flawed, that Murdaugh was innocent and — in an allegation they have made in court appeals seeking a new trial — that Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill had improperly influenced the jury to vote for a guilty verdict. Harpootlian described her as “a den mother… who crossed a line” with great behind-the-scenes influence over the jury. Hill has not commented, but supporters say she didn’t act improperly.

“The law will not permit this verdict to stand,” said Griffin, explaining that the defense team’s potential appeals include going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Harpootlian said he and Griffin are seeking a hearing where all the jurors will testify under oath about what Hill told them.

If they win a new trial, it will be held in a different county from Colleton and all jurors will be sequestered for the trial’s duration to produce a jury “that is not pre-cooked,” Harpootlian said.

“How do you sleep at night?” one man asked Harpootlian after the lawyer said he had defended killers he knew were guilty.

“I’m doing my job,” Harpootlian told him, “and as long as I’m doing my job with integrity,” the state has the burden of proving its case. “That’s how the system works,” he said.

Dick Harpootlian (center) making a point as he and fellow Alex Murdaugh defense attorney Jim Griffin (left) addressed a CrimeCon crowd on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Host ABC correspondent Eva Pilgrim is on the right.
Dick Harpootlian (center) making a point as he and fellow Alex Murdaugh defense attorney Jim Griffin (left) addressed a CrimeCon crowd on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Host ABC correspondent Eva Pilgrim is on the right. John Monk [email protected]

CrimeCon

More than 5,000 people paid to attend the weekend’s CrimeCon 2023 convention, an “immersive, weekend-long event dedicated to all things true crime and mystery,” organizers said.

The gathering of so many crime-obsessed people to attend sessions on America’s most horrific crimes is an event, like Woodstock in the 1960s, that somehow catches the spirit of our age, with its macabre background soundtrack of terrifying murders, mysterious disappearances, stranger abductions and serial killers.

“I used to read Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys when I was younger. From that point on, I was just a true crime junkie,” said Lynn St. Phillips, 72, retired postmaster from Syracuse, New York, with her friend, Marianne, Garlipp, 58, an information technology specialist.

Most attendees are female.

Women are especially attracted to true crime because they feel vulnerable for themselves and their children, true crime celebrity television personality Nancy Grace explained to an audience of more than 1,500 Friday night. They sense that a knowledge of the world’s evils can prepare them to better protect themselves, she said.

The convention was at the 2,000-plus room, 28-story Orlando World Center Marriott, a sprawling hotel complex in central Florida’s marshy lowlands near Disney World. Sessions were held in auditoriums large enough to hold simultaneous gatherings of more than 1,000 people each.

More than 2,000 people attended an appearance by Creighton Waters, the prosecutor in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial, at the annual CrimeCon conference in Orlando on Sept. 23, 2023.
More than 2,000 people attended an appearance by Creighton Waters, the prosecutor in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial, at the annual CrimeCon conference in Orlando on Sept. 23, 2023. John Monk [email protected]

More than 80 panels featured police, prosecutors, profilers, podcasters, defense lawyers, victims and writers who held forth on every crime on evil’s spectrum. Topics included the latest on the Idaho killer, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Long Island serial killer, the Golden State serial killer and forums on bloodstains and DNA, to name a few. Nonviolent, white collar financial crimes are not part of the mix.

Attendees got chances to mix and mingle, albeit briefly, with the speakers.

After Waters, Harpootlian and Griffin spoke, they attended meet-and-greets, where people took selfies with them and sometimes got their autographs.

Harpootlian said, “I was surprised at how knowledgeable these people are. They know details I didn’t know.”

CrimeCon costs

CrimeCon is not cheap. A standard wear-around-the-neck pass that gets you into most of the 90-plus sessions costs $349, a gold pass that secures up-front seating and other perks in popular sessions is $799, and a platinum pass that offers perks and access to featured speakers costs $1,499. (None of the tickets include meals or hotel room, but do come with a free CrimeCon 2023 T-shirt.)

Platinum passes got their bearers into a special non-publicized 3 p.m. Saturday session with Harpootlian and Griffin.

“I wouldn’t pay that much to see me,” quipped Harpootlian.

Unlike another, similarly named convention — Comic-Con — CrimeCon does not allow attendees to wear costumes of, say, serial killers.

“Cosplay (dressing up in theme or as a character) is prohibited as creating an environment of respect and learning is paramount,” says a CrimeCon behavior guideline.

But there’s plenty of CrimeCon atmosphere. People who paid for tickets got black tote bags with the word “EVIDENCE” in big yellow and white letters on them. T-shirts and sweat shirts with messages like “Oh That Pesky DNA” and “I’m Only Here for an Alibi” and “Solve the case” abounded. A cup for sale read “Talk Motive To Me.”

Dozens of true crime books were on sale, included everything from “Trail of the Lost” (about missing hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail) to Ann Rule’s classic about serial killer Ted Bundy, “The Stranger Beside Me.”

An array of true-crime books were for sale at the CrimeCon conference in Orlando, where lawyers involved in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh appeared on Sept. 23, 2023.
An array of true-crime books were for sale at the CrimeCon conference in Orlando, where lawyers involved in the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh appeared on Sept. 23, 2023. John Monk [email protected]

Waters, Harpootlian and Griffin said they were only paid for expenses — air fare and lodging. They said they came to talk about their role in one of today’s most publicized stories in the world of justice and true crime.

“I’m not paid to speak, I’m a public servant,” Waters said, explaining he checked out CrimeCon before agreeing to attend to see that it was respectful and legitimate. “Once that happened, it seemed like it would be an interesting event.”

As Waters made clear to his huge Saturday audience, “I just tried to focus on the process of the trial and tell a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes. I wasn’t there to advocate a position,” he said.

Harpootlian said he came because, “Jim and I have a story to tell.”

Waters, besides being a top prosecutor, is also a formidable musician and the lead guitarist in a Columbia rock band, the Sole Purpose.

On Thursday night, he and his band held a pre-convention concert for CrimeCon-goers, playing classic rock hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s including hits by groups like the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He distributed a few plastic guitar picks, as is the custom at such events.

“You jam on stage, and you jam in the courtroom!” Court TV moderator Matt Johnson gushed to Waters at his Saturday panel.

Stephen Smith

Kenny Kinsey, the crime-scene investigator given credit for being a key prosecution witness at the Murdaugh trial for testimony that undermined the defense’s two-shooter version of how Paul and Maggie were killed, was also a speaker at CrimeCon. On Friday, Kinsey held forth to a rapt audience of more than 1,000 who interrupted his talk with applause dozens of times.

At one point, when Kinsey mentioned the name of prosecutor Waters, who was not in attendance at that event, the crowd erupted in applause — a measure of how well-known Waters has become in the true crime world.

Kinsey was asked about the mysterious death of Stephen Smith, the 19-year-old Hampton County man whose body was found on a rural road in 2015. Various conspiracy theories publicized on social media have linked Smith’s death to various members of the Murdaugh family, but no evidence has ever been found supporting those claims.

Kinsey, who was hired by lawyers for Smith’s mother, said he knows the results of a second recent autopsy of Smith, but was not at liberty to share them. Kinsey predicted the results will be made public soon.

Audience member Savannah Montgomery, 31, an event planner, and her husband, Ben, 33, an office manager, from Atlanta, have been following the Murdaugh case “since the beginning” and were interested in what Kinsey had to say.

“He came across as very honest. I thought he used humor to talk about sensitive subjects, which helped it be more digestible and less traumatic,” said Savannah.

“There are so many layers. There is so much that has been said about it. And so much that is unknown about it,” said Ben.

“I wish we knew more about Stephen Smith, but maybe we’ll get that soon,” said Savannah.

Other major players in South Carolina’s Murdaugh saga were not in Orlando. They include Hill, the Colleton County Clerk of Court who was one of the first people out with a book after the trial and who has been accused of unlawful jury tampering that allegedly got the jury to rush to a guilty verdict. Other non-attendees: State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel, Attorney General Alan Wilson and State Judge Clifton Newman.

Griffin said, “It was an eye-opening experience. I did not know that anything like this existed. I’m amazed at the public interest in the genre of true crime. Whether it’s a fad or here to stay, I don’t know the answer to that.”

Editor’s note: This article originally misstated Waters’ guitar playing role in his rock band. He is lead guitarist.

This story was originally published September 24, 2023, 11:11 AM.

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including those of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and child killer Tim Jones. Monk’s hobbies include hiking, books, languages, music and a lot of other things.

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