Preview of “Blood on Their Hands: Murder, Corruption, and the Fall of the Murdaugh Dynasty”

When I was researching upcoming book releases on NetGalley this past summer, I noticed Mandy Matney had a memoir coming out about her involvement with the Alex Murdaugh case. I immediately requested the book and was excited to get an advance copy of it. I had listened to her show, “The Murdaugh Murders Podcast” and knew that she had worked in the local media around South Carolina. I wanted to get her take on how she first found out about Paul Murdaugh’s involvement in the boat crash on Archers Creek, the suspicious deaths of Stephen Smith and Gloria Satterfield, and how she felt when she discovered Paul and Maggie Murdaugh had been murdered.

Here’s the official synopsis of the book:

Years before the name Alex Murdaugh was splashed across every major media outlet in America, local South Carolina journalist Mandy Matney had an instinct that something wasn’t right in the Lowcountry. The powerful Murdaugh dynasty had dominated rural South Carolina for generations. No one dared to cross them.

When Mandy and her reporting partner Liz Farrell looked closer at a fatal boat crash involving the storied family’s teenage son Paul, they began to uncover a web of mysteries surrounding the deaths of the Murdaughs’ long-time housekeeper and a young man found slain years earlier on a backcountry road. Just as their investigations were unfolding, the brutal double murder of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh rocketed Alex Murdaugh onto the international stage.

From the newsroom to the courtroom, to the kitchen-table studio where Mandy recorded her #1 Murdaugh Murders PodcastBlood on Their Hands is a propulsive true crime saga, an empathetic work of investigative journalism, and an excoriation of the “good old boy” systems that enabled a network of criminals.

Here are my thoughts on the book.

“Blood on Their Hands” is a memoir that journalist and podcaster Mandy Matney wrote after four years of reporting on Alex Murdaugh, his family, and their numerous related crimes. It details how she first became aware of the Murdaughs after Mallory Beach went missing after the boat crash on Archers Creek, the mysterious death of Stephen Smith that many people felt was connected to the Murdaughs, the death of the Murdaugh’s housekeeper, and finally, the deaths of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. With dogged reporting, Mandy Matney and a few other diligent South Carolina reporters would realize how everything would lead to the fact that Alex Murdaugh had been abusing narcotics and embezzling money from innocent people for years before his crimes caught up to him.

In the book, Matney shares how she was a journalist who had gotten her start right out of college as the editor of a small newspaper in a Missouri miltary town. This was a job with a big title and small salary to match, where she had to beg the corporate office for basic things she needed to do her job, such as a freelance budget for writers or a new camera. She later moved on to a job as a digital editor of a newspaper in Illinois, with the goal of increasing the traffic and pageviews for the paper’s website. After a few years, facing many of the same frustrations she had been dealing with at her previous paper, Matney opted to look for a job in a warmer climate. The Island Packet offered her a job as a digital projects producer. The Island Packet was owned by McClatchey, the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country. This is where she learned the importance of meeting pageview goals, as each reporter was responsible for this and their advancement within the company was tied to this initiative. She quickly found that alligator and shark stories from the coast had the tendency to go viral. This is where she met Liz Farrell, a reporter and editor who now works alongside Matney on her podcast team.

When Matney first started her job at The Island Packet, she immediately saw a difference in their newsroom environment compared to places she’d worked in the past. She said there were “no burned-out reporters forced to work second jobs on the weekends. There were no disgruntled readers showing up at my desk to complain about typos. Instead, “there was a pervasive vibe of optimism and importance about the place.”

She had been at The Island Packet a few years, working as the breaking news editor, when the boat crash on Archer’s Creek occurred. It was Liz Farrell who first alerted Matney that she had an odd feeling about the story surrounding the crash involving six teens, one of whom remained missing. The boat crash had occurred in Beaufort County, near Parris Island, while the passengers on the boat were all from Hampton County, which did not fall under the coverage area of The Island Packet. The reporters noticed there was no official press release available right away. They also couldn’t help but notice the online chatter about who was really driving the boat. This was the first time Matney and her co-workers heard the name Paul Murdaugh. She quickly became obsessed with learning as much as she could about the Murdaugh family, because the more she researched, the more she uncovered. She writes in her memoir, “But The Island Packet had a strict rule that they would only print names attached to criminal stories when they were felony cases, unless the accused person was in a position of public trust.”

While reading her story, I developed a new respect for Mandy Matney. There were many roadblocks that she encountered along the way to uncovering all the pieces of this story, from sexist attitudes in the newsroom, power players affecting how her stories were covered or not covered, and having her stories taken away from her and given to male reporters at related, larger, corporate newspapers. Eventually she was wooed away from The Island Packet by FITSNews, a local independent news media outlet, where she continued her coverage of all things related to the Murdaughs. What she encountered along the way sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood film script, from anonymous sources contacting her, to online trolls sending her degrading messages, to being followed by law enforcement on a dark country road when she met with Stephen Smith’s sister, to Alex Murdaugh’s attorneys making fun of her in court. Her mental health took a toll while she was determined to see the story through. I had noticed that she wasn’t one of the reporters who made regular appearances on news media during the trial coverage, and now I can understand why. She developed severe anxiety while covering the family’s crimes and dealing with the constant criticism and harassment.

I will admit that when I first listened to Matney’s podcast, “The Murdaugh Murders,” I had already started this podcast, and I was a little turned off by the editing style. I could tell she would record a sentence or two, stop, and then re-record. I found the constant interruptions distracting, and I also wasn’t sure what to make of her complaining about the messages she was getting about people not liking her voice.

She explains in the memoir that she first started the podcast because she had so much more information to share than she was allowed to in her daily news job with FITS News, and she didn’t know the ins and outs of how to produce a podcast well. Plus, she was doing it on a shoestring budget, with the help of her now-husband David, which I completely understand. She wanted a little more grace from listeners as she started the podcast, and she felt like the information she was sharing was more important than people not liking her “vocal fry.” Reading this memoir, I believe people will understand exactly how hard she worked to get the podcast up and running, and she did it with a sense of urgency because the Murdaugh story was one that reporters from all over the country latched on to immediately. Quite frankly, she didn’t want to be scooped when she’d spent so many years cultivating her sources and doing her due diligence with local residents and law enforcement officials, and I believe readers will sympathize with that.

Eventually, Matney went out on her own to start her own podcast production company, figured out how to monetize her content, and reported on the Alex Murdaugh trial on her own terms. Along the way, she uncovered other crimes that needed to be covered in South Carolina and teamed up with an attorney to produce a separate podcast called “Cup of Justice.”

I want to talk next about another memoir that was recently released by someone involved with the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. Rebecca “Becky” Hill, was serving her first term as the Colleton County Clerk of Court when Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of murdering his wife and son on March 3 of this year. By mid-July, she had published a memoir about the experience titled “Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders.” According to an article that ran in the Greenville News, the book was co-written with Neil R. Gordon, and featured photos taken by his wife Melissa Brinson Gordon.

Melissa Gordon had gone to Walterboro to document Alex Murdaugh’s trial when she met Becky Hill. A friendship formed, and Melissa introduced Becky to Neil, who would become her co-author. Neil Gordon told the Greenville News that two got together and wrote 42,000 words of a memoir told from Hill’s perspective. The book includes the backstory on Becky Hill’s personal journey from becoming the Colleton County Clerk of Court to her experience working on the trial, her description of visiting the crime scene at Moselle, back story on the presiding judge Clifton Newman, and of course, information about the defendant himself, Alex Murdaugh. The book also shares how Hill discovered her grandfather and Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather were involved in an illegal business almost 70 years ago.

Last month, the South Carolina Court of Appeals granted Alex Murdaugh’s motion to suspend his conviction and sent the case back to circuit court to consider allegations of jury tampering by the Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill.

Alex Murdaugh is currently serving two consecutive life sentences in a state prison for the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. He pleaded guilty to nearly two dozen fraud and money laundering charges last month in a federal courtroom in Charleston. According to CNN, that plea was related to the scheme Alex was involved in where he defrauded multiple personal injury clients and laundered more than $7 million in funds. He was accused of using those settlement funds for his own personal benefit, using the proceeds to pay off cash loans, pay for personal expenses, and make cash withdrawals.

His attorneys, Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian, filed a motion to suspend the murder conviction appeal, which he requested just days after the jury returned their verdict, so they could move forward with requesting a new trial.

Their motion for a new trial contained allegations that Becky Hill had tampered with the jury by “advising them not to believe Murdaugh’s testimony and other evidence presented by the defense.” Three jurors have signed sworned affadavits in this matter. They also claimed Becky Hill had private conversations with the jury foreperson and pressured jurors to come to a quick verdict. Murdaugh’s attorneys also claimed that the Clerk of Court tampered with the jury in order to try and secure herself a book deal and media appearances that wouldn’t have happened in the event of a mistrial. The defense has asked that Judge Clifton Newman, who presided over the murder trial, be removed from consideration in the evidentiary hearing, arguing that he is not impartial and could be a witness to the jury tampering allegations.

Just this week, Hill responded to the jury tampering allegations in a signed affadavit, saying, “numerous misrepresentations and false statements” had been made. She said she did not tell jurors “not to be fooled” by evidence presented by the defense, she did not have private conversations with jurors about the trial, and she did not tell jurors before deliberations that “this shouldn’t take us long.” The response included interviews the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division conducted with nine of the twelve jurors. The three who testified otherwise declined to be interviewed. Investigators also interviewed court staff, who reported hearing no improper comments or conversations by the Clerk of Court.

I’ll keep you posted on the status of Alex Murdaugh’s appeal as developments occur in the coming months.

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