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‘Says it all’: experts react to Buster Murdaugh’s facepalm during father’s testimony in double murder trial

Buster Murdaugh reacts to his father testifying in court during the second day of cross

Buster Murdaugh, the son of Alex Murdaugh, listens to his father testify during his trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (Image via Joshua Boucher/The State/Pool)

Disbarred attorney and accused killer Alex Murdaugh gave jurors in his double murder trial a rare perspective when he testified in his defense last week. But the defendant’s lengthy, days-long recitation of his admitted lies, admitted financial crimes, and the awful scene he described when he found the slain bodies of his wife and youngest son also took a toll on his oldest son.

Law&Crime surveyed several legal experts for their reaction to Buster Murdaugh reacting to his father’s testimony as lead prosecutor Creighton Waters led an intensive and grueling cross-examination.

“Buster’s mom and brother were brutally murdered, and the State of South Carolina has accused his father of those murders,” Robert Rikard, a South Carolina-based attorney who previously worked with Dick Harpootlian, told Law&Crime. “Buster has sat in the courtroom for weeks supporting his father and has had to listen to horrific testimony regarding the way his mom and brother died. He has watched the State attempt to convince a jury that his father is guilty of those brutal murders. Regardless of what anyone believes about the guilt or innocence of Alex Murdaugh, this tragedy has real impact on his son, and you can see that reflected in this photo of Buster as he listened to his father testify. Imagine how difficult this all is for him with his mom and brother murdered and his father sitting there accused of these horrible crimes.”

“It appears Buster is all in on his father’s testimony, but the gory details of the murders are likely starting to weigh on him,” Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Rachel Fiset said in an email. “He has been a fervent supporter of his father throughout the case, and it was likely difficult for him to hear some of the issues being brought up through his father’s testimony – including that his father lied about his whereabouts the night of the murders. Nevertheless, it appears that he does offer his dad his full support.”

On Friday, Alex Murdaugh was finally quizzed about the night of the murders by the state. During those exchanges, Waters accused the defendant of concocting a “new story” simply for jurors’ benefit – to which the accused again admitted he previously and repeatedly lied about his whereabouts on that fatal night.

“One can only imagine the trauma this young man is experiencing watching his father testify,” Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Joshua Ritter told Law&Crime. “Putting aside the brutal details of the death of his mother and brother, he is also witnessing the heroic figure that he believed his father to be, unravel before his eyes. Assuming that he believes his father is innocent of the murders, he has to be asking the same question that all of us have, why would his father lie about the most crucial details of that evening?”

Body language expert Dr. Carole Lieberman had an even more withering view of Buster Murdaugh’s reaction.

“I watched Murdaugh’s testimony,” she said in an email. “Buster’s body language says it all. Murdaugh’s testimony was not only an embarrassment to himself and the family, it is likely to result in a guilty verdict. Buster was covering his face because he didn’t want to see this train wreck. Also, Murdaugh was trying to make the point that he loved ‘Paw Paw’ (and Maggie), so he could never have murdered them. In so doing, Murdaugh made it seem like Buster didn’t exist or was an afterthought at best.”

Perhaps the bigger question remains how jurors likely reacted to the sight of the defendant’s surviving son burying his head.

“From the photos I’ve seen of Buster Murdaugh in the courtroom with his face down in his palms, that couldn’t possibly be good for the jury,” Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Matthew Barhoma said. “If the jury is perceiving that Alex Murdaugh’s own son has his face in his hands, it seems like he doesn’t believe Alex’s testimony, so why should they? Ultimately, it’s not a good look and confirms exactly what the issue was with Alex Murdaugh taking the stand, to begin with – that he would look not of sound or competent mind, or at least would seem to be advancing what could very likely be, lies. His emotions are all over the place. We’ve seen him cry and sob, we’ve seen him laugh, tears and snot and all. It can’t possibly look good to a jury, and I can’t imagine this was a good courtroom setting.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Horrible move’: criminal defense attorneys criticize Alex Murdaugh taking the stand in his defense

“Even if the proceedings aren’t going well, if you make things seem fine, it carries weight with the jury, who might think that if everyone seems OK, then it is OK,” Barhoma added. “But Buster’s reaction makes it seem like things are not OK, and the jury is going to take notice.”

Ross Suter, a senior vice president with Magna Legal Services, a jury consulting firm, said in an email he doubted Buster Murdaugh’s reaction to his father’s testimony would make much of an impact.

“It’s not surprising that Buster Murdaugh was emotional during his father’s testimony,” Suter said. “Jurors will often look for an emotional reaction from the gallery that draws attention. In this instance, while there may have been one or two individuals seeking a specific reaction from Buster, it’s most likely the jurors were focused on the questioning of his father. It is a unique situation for a defendant to testify on his own behalf, and in this seminal moment, the jury was judging the credibility, likeability, and body language of Alex Murdaugh. They had already made determinations on the credibility of Buster based on his earlier testimony, so this is truly the moment where the jury makes a determination on Alex and whether to send him to prison for the rest of his life.”

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