For some around the state, there were questions about whether the state attorney general’s decision not to seek the death penalty had been a final moment in which Mr. Murdaugh had been able to exercise the privilege of his station.
“We currently have people right now that are waiting to get executed who have done things that are far less savage and violent than what Alex Murdaugh did,” said Joshua Snow Kendrick, a lawyer in South Carolina who represents several clients on death row. “This probably helps show how arbitrary the death penalty is.”
Mr. Kendrick said that many death row prisoners who were born into impoverished or troubled families never had an opportunity to make the connections Mr. Murdaugh had. Mr. Murdaugh had also hired a powerful legal team, including a sitting state senator, Dick Harpootlian, who is also a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
In South Carolina, as in many other states, prisoners on death row are disproportionately Black. According to data from the state prison agency, about half of the 35 people awaiting executions are Black, even though Black people make up only about one-fourth of the broader population.
Prosecutors said a range of factors led them to decide, a month before trial, not to pursue the death penalty in Mr. Murdaugh’s case, including the cost and complexity of such a case, the uncertain legal state of executions in South Carolina, and the lengthier trial required in death penalty cases.
“He’s 54 years old, and if you know anything about the death penalty it doesn’t happen overnight,” Creighton Waters, the assistant deputy attorney general who led the prosecution, said in an interview after the sentencing. “Proceeding forward as we did — without the additional complications of a death penalty trial — and seeking to put him in prison for the rest of his life, seemed to be the appropriate way to go.”
Some lawyers said the decision had been a wise legal move and could have been motivated by an issue that prosecutors may have been hesitant to say out loud: The case against Mr. Murdaugh was built largely on circumstantial evidence and the crime had gone unsolved for more than a year, a sign that it was far from an open-and-shut prosecution. In cases with no witnesses or confession, jurors are often wary of sentencing a defendant to death, they said.