Covering the Murdaugh Trial: A Q&A with Associated Press Journalist, Jeffery Collins

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About Jeffery Collins

Jeffery Collins is a graduate of the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia. After working in several places, including The Herald in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he joined The Associated Press in 2000. Collins considers the entirety of South Carolina as his beat, covering stories from all 46 counties yearly. Collins has covered dozens of trials in South Carolina; he recently covered the double murder trial of disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh who was found guilty and sentenced to a life sentence without parole on Friday, March 3, for murdering his wife and son. 

Q&A

What are some of the biggest trials you’ve covered in South Carolina?

I’ve covered probably well over a dozen different trials; probably the biggest in my mind was the Dylann Roof federal trial where he got the death penalty for killing the nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. I’ve done several different death penalty cases and covered some lower-level stuff. One of the first ones I remember was a mother who was accused of smoking crack and then killing her baby. That was about 20 years ago, and it became a big deal because it was the first prosecution of its kind in the country. So I’ve covered several interesting high-profile South Carolina cases.

How does the Alex Murdaugh trial compare to those trials?

It was certainly the biggest circus I have been a part of; the only thing that I think was comparable was the Susan Smith case in Union County, South Carolina. It seemed like, being almost 30 years ago, it’s hard to compare because of social media and all these other things that did not exist in the mid to late 90s. But the Murdaugh trial had like I said, a circus-like atmosphere; it captivated people to where they wanted to get completely immersed in it; I mean, all the Twitter feeds that were done on it and all that stuff. To me, that was the biggest difference; this was something people wanted to experience fully and not just have it mentioned briefly towards them.

What stuck with you about the atmosphere of the courtroom during the trial?

It had a little bit of a dichotomy to it. In the courtroom itself, there was decorum. That being said, sometimes the judge had to tell people they couldn’t react to a piece of testimony or anything because there’s some people in the audience that wanted to “ooh or ahh” when the prosecution made a point. But for the most part, the decorum in the courtroom was very good and respectful. Outside the courtroom, it was a little bit different. You have the town of Walterboro, which is only about 5,000 people, so they brought in food trucks because suddenly you had close to 1,000 people disappear, and they had to eat and do some other things. It would overwhelm the restaurants, and of course, when you have all these people descend on a place, inevitably other people come who have their own little advocacy or religious message that gives a little bit of a circus feel.

From a reporters perspective, what were some of the most challenging elements of covering this case?

The single most challenging, to be honest with you, from a reporting aspect is that the judge didn’t allow any electronic devices in the courtroom. In today’s media world, where people are demanding stories and content immediately, then it becomes impossible to cover that as one person if you have to be stationed in the courtroom because you don’t have any access to your electronic devices. That being said, the court T.V. was fantastic; they had three cameras in the courtroom, the audio was great, and they broadcasted the trial. The only thing you missed from covering it outside the courtroom was the jury because they didn’t put the camera on the jury. But it becomes much easier to cover this case in a way that allows you to immediately tell people what is going on because of that kind of streaming coverage.

In your opinion, what were some of the key takeaways from the trial?

Oftentimes in trials, people begin to root for one side or the other, and certainly the prosecution had, by far, the most public sentiment behind it. From an actual trial standpoint, going into this, the prosecution had been very cagey about exactly what evidence they had, so it was very interesting to see something like that video from the kennel come forth and be able to see the prosecution’s case unfold and how very critical it was to their case. Especially when you consider other parts of their case lacking solid, definitive evidence.

So the verdict was announced last Friday for the trial, Alex Murdaugh has been found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. What do you think was the key piece of evidence that lead the jury to their decision?

In interviews with the jurors, they mentioned that the kennel video was a key piece of evidence. The other thing that I gathered from some of the media interviews with the jurors was that they didn’t believe Alex Murdaugh at all. Which is not necessarily surprising but to the point where they didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt at all. Basically, whatever he said, they figured, was a lie immediately and a self-serving lie. That was a pretty big deal in the trial as well, and I think this is one of those cases that doesn’t turn as much on evidence as it turned on how you felt. I think the prosecution did a good job of convincing jurors that Alex Murdaugh lies a lot and that he wasn’t a sympathetic character at all. They were able to convince jurors that he was the kind of person who could have done this. That’s key in any trial; even if you don’t have the direct evidence like weapons or bloody clothing, at least they were able to convince jurors that he was capable of doing this.