Opinion | Why Alex Murdaugh’s Quick Conviction Worries Me

As I watched the gripping murder trial of the prominent South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh over the last few weeks, I found myself wrestling with difficult questions about how data from smartphones and other digital technologies should be relied upon in the criminal justice system. We are all being constantly and intimately tracked by our gadgets, but the voluminous records produced by these devices are not always easy to interpret.

In the Murdaugh case, arguments by both the prosecution and the defense involved loads of data, and both sides raised important points about what the digital records prove and do not prove in a high-stakes case — and I expected a jury to have a hard time getting to the bottom of these issues.

Well, apparently not. The Murdaugh trial lasted almost six weeks. The prosecution and defense called more than 70 witnesses. The jury began deliberating after lunch on Thursday and reached a verdict by dinnertime. I have little quarrel with its decision, but the lightning speed with which it came to its conclusion — about three hours — makes me deeply uncomfortable with how the criminal justice system might deal with all of the digital effluvia being spewed by our devices. Unlike the jury, apparently, I worry that the evidence our devices produce can just as easily muddy the picture of a crime as clarify it.

Murdaugh was convicted of shooting to death his wife, Maggie, and their 22-year-old son, Paul, near the dog kennels on the family’s vast estate in Colleton County, S.C., in June 2021. There were no witnesses, and the police found little forensic evidence to tie Murdaugh to the crime. They did not recover any murder weapons or any blood-soaked clothing; and because the murders occurred on Murdaugh’s property and he touched the bodies when he discovered them (he says he felt Paul for a pulse and touched Maggie on her waist), the evidence of his DNA found at the scene proves little.

Instead, the prosecution’s case stood on two pillars. First, Alex Murdaugh’s dishonesty and crookedness — he has admitted to stealing millions from his clients and law partners and lying about his actions to almost everyone, including to the police in this case. (Prosecutors say he killed his wife and son to distract from his financial crimes, a theory I found dubious — the murders only added to the scrutiny.)

Second, prosecutors reconstructed a tight timeline of the crime using lots and lots of data. Among other sources, they extracted information from Alex, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s iPhones, call records of family and friends, location and speed data from Murdaugh’s S.U.V., entry logs from his office security system, images from automatic license plate readers mounted on public roads, communications on social networks and messaging apps, reams of financial data and video and audio recorded on Murdaugh’s 911 call and by police officers at the scene.

It isn’t surprising that authorities would mine such data to determine basic facts like who was where and when, but prosecutors in the Murdaugh case claimed to find many deeper truths in the digital record. And it’s in their interpretations of the data that they sometimes lost me. Often, they seemed to be finding patterns in the data that didn’t necessarily hold true, and this made me wary that the authorities can build outlandish stories from our data.

For instance, the victims’ time of death. The county coroner said Maggie and Paul were killed between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on June 7, 2021. To get a more precise time for the killings, prosecutors pointed to the victims’ phone usage. Paul was known to be always looking at his phone, and both Paul and Maggie’s phones were last unlocked at around 8:49 p.m. that night. And so, prosecutors argued, Maggie and Paul must have died just after 8:49 — what else but death could have kept them from responding to incoming texts?

An 8:49 time of death put Alex Murdaugh in deep trouble. His voice was recorded on a Snapchat video captured by Paul at the kennels around 8:45 p.m. that night — in other words, Alex would have been at the scene of the crime just minutes before the victims’ time of death. Murdaugh initially told the police he had not been at the kennels around that time and only admitted he had been there after the Snapchat video was found. (He explained that his addiction to opioids had driven a paranoia that had caused him to lie.)

Prosecutors claimed to see much more in the data. Murdaugh’s iPhone didn’t record him taking any steps between 8:09 p.m. and 9:02 p.m. that night. Since he too was known to be always glued to his phone, did his hour of nonactivity show he had deliberately stashed his phone so it wouldn’t show him going to the dog kennels during the murders? Then, at 9:02 p.m., Murdaugh’s phone recorded a flurry of activity — lots of phone calls, lots of steps walked. Was this evidence that he was “manufacturing an alibi” to show that he was otherwise occupied around the time of the murders, as the prosecution argued?

Murdaugh’s car was also scrutinized. Murdaugh says that on the night of the murders, he drove to and from his mother’s house (his mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and he and others in the family often dropped in to check on her). Tracking data provided by General Motors’ OnStar service showed that Murdough’s Chevy Suburban did indeed drive to and from his mother’s house at the time. But on his way there, Murdaugh hit a top speed of more than 70 miles per hour. Why was he going so fast, prosecutors wondered — was he speeding to flee the murder scene as fast as he could? Later, at his mother’s house, Murdaugh’s phone data showed him walking around outside for several minutes. Why? Was he trying to hide something?

Come on — really? I can see how some of these details can paint a pretty damning picture when put together on a neat timeline. But I expected the jury to spend some time pondering the perfectly innocuous explanations for many of them.

By 8:49 p.m. Paul Murdaugh’s phone battery was down to 2 percent — wouldn’t that have been a perfectly good reason for him to put down his phone? And while Maggie Murdaugh’s phone was not unlocked after 8:49, it did record some usage after that time — its backlight went on and off, its orientation changed from sideways to vertical and it recorded moving about 59 steps. Did that mean Maggie was not yet dead? Or that the killer was moving her phone? (It was found using Apple’s “find my phone” feature the day after the murders on the side of the road leading to the Murdaugh property; the prosecution alleged he threw her phone out of his car on his way to his mother’s house.) To complicate matters, both Alex and his brother testified that it was Alex who provided the police with the password to Maggie’s phone — but if Alex knew Maggie’s password, why didn’t he unlock her phone after the killing, if he was the murderer, just to complicate the time of death?

Also, if Alex Murdaugh was speeding away from his house to flee the crime scene, why did he drive at more than 80 miles per hour on the way back from his mother’s house? Could it be that he just had a heavy foot?

Then there’s all the walking and phone calling he did at around 9 p.m. and later at his mom’s house — couldn’t he have just been pacing while on the phone, something I find myself doing all the time? Could it also be possible that his phone’s step data was inaccurate? Studies have found that the iPhone’s activity measurements are far from perfect. When I’m on a plane, my iPhone sometimes thinks I’m driving; when I’m in a car, my Apple Watch sometimes praises me for working out. Why should we believe these devices are good enough for a murder conviction?

Murdaugh’s speedy guilty verdict suggests that the legal system may have a hard time teasing out such complexities. Murdaugh’s defense team pointed out some of these issues, but because technology is complicated and its idiosyncrasies difficult to explain — and most likely because Alex Murdaugh’s lies were tough to explain away — their arguments clearly did not land.

Yes, our devices now capture everything about what everyone is doing, but making sense of that data isn’t trivial. In the Murdaugh case, both sides pointed to the digital record — but by the end of the trial, I felt like I had no real idea what actually happened. The jury was hardly so cautious.

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