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At This Hour

Alex Murdaugh Sentenced To Life In Prison For Killing Wife & Son; Tornadoes Strike Texas And Louisiana As Storms Pummel The South. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 03, 2023 - 11:00   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: It's really something, really something. Thanks again to Camila for that report.

Thanks to all of you for joining us today and joining us this week. I'm Erica Hill.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. At This Hour with Amara Walker starts right now.

AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone, and welcome. I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan. We begin this hour with the sentencing of Alex Murdaugh, which wrapped up just a short time ago. The judge sentenced the disgraced South Carolina attorney to two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife, Maggie, and his 22 year old son, Paul. Before the judge handed down the sentence, Murdaugh addressed the court, briefly maintaining his innocence.


ALEX MURDAUGH, CONVICTED OF MURDERING WIFE AND SON: And I'll tell you again, I respect this court, but I'm innocent. I would never, under any circumstances hurt my wife, Maggie. And I would never, under any circumstances hurt my son, Paul-Paul.

JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA CIRCUIT COURT: And it might not have been you. It might have been the monster you become when you take 15, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 opioid pills, maybe you become another person.


WALKER: This all comes just one day after the jury convicted Murdaugh on four charges. It took the jurors less than three hours to reach their verdict on Thursday. Let's get straight to Dianne Gallagher now who's been following this trial from the very beginning. She's live at the courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina. Dianne, walk us through what happened in court this morning. I mean, it was just incredibly remarkable to hear from Judge Clifton Newman reflecting in a very measured way, talking about these crimes that Murdaugh's been convicted of, but also the person that he saw him become. DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Amara, we've talked for so long about why this particular case has captivated the nation, why people are following it. And it was about more than the murders of Maggie and Paul, as tragic as those are. It was about the power that people had. It was about the power this family had for a century as the solicitors, the prosecutors in this region, and about accountability.

And what we saw today, the judge alluded to, the judge said, you had such a beautiful family, friendly people, you were gregarious and friendly. How did you go from that to this? The judge said that Murdaugh had argued before him in the past. They knew each other. He removed a portrait of Murdaugh's grandfather from that exact courtroom behind me where this murder trial took place. And Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murdering Maggie and Paul Murdaugh because he wanted to ensure a fair trial.

I was astonished at the powerful words of Judge Clifton Newman and just how raw he got with Alex Murdaugh before he sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for those murders. Take a listen to this moment.


NEWMAN: I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night times when you're attempting to go to sleep. I'm sure they come and visit you. I'm sure.

MURDAUGH: All day and every night.

NEWMAN: Yes. I'm sure. And they will continue to do so and reflect on the last time they looked you in eyes as you look the jury in the eyes.


GALLAGHER: Now, you know, there were no victim impact statements that were delivered on behalf of the state, Amara, even though South Carolina law does allow for and require them to make them available at that time, no one from the Murdaugh family. And it is incredibly complicated, of course, because this is a man convicted of murdering his wife and his son, but no one spoke. The prosecutor, though, spoke on their behalf instead.

WALKER: And, Dianne, if you will just give us context. You've spent much time there in Hampton County, you know just how small this town is. It's very rural. I've been there as well, covering parts of this case. And the fact that the judge, you know, got so personal and just so reflective, just underscores just how closely knit this community is. He talked about seeing him practice law, but also, it goes to show that this must really be deeply impacting the community.


GALLAGHER: It is. And I will tell you can probably see, look, there are tons of people still out here behind me. Many of them are individuals who are either attorneys for, related to, or victims themselves of other alleged crimes that Alex Murdaugh is charged with. The judge referenced this when talking about it, that we have -- he's been convicted of murder. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. But there are 90 plus additional charges that the judge still has to preside over with dozens of victims from financial crimes, from other type of fraud crimes that are related to Alex Murdaugh.

And, look, we just heard from the father of Mallory Beach, whose daughter was killed in a boat crash. Paul Murdaugh was charged in before he died driving with that boat. He had pleaded not guilty. And those charges were dropped after he was murdered. But Mallory Beach's father said that, you know, this sentence was something he could, you know, this felt like the closest thing they would ever get to justice.

Eric Bland, the attorney who represents Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh family housekeeper who died after an alleged fall at their home, and then Alex Murdaugh admitted on the stand and has admitted in court in a settlement agreement to stealing millions of dollars from her sons. He talked about this. There are so many people who are impacted by this here.

You know, Amara, one last thing, including the judge himself. He focused in on the fact that he felt sorry for Alex Murdaugh, seeing him in the media as a grieving father and husband to start with. Judge Clifton Newman's son died right before unexpectedly this trial began. He spoke himself as a grieving father to Alex Murdaugh, a man who again has just been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing his own son and wife.

WALKER: Just really extraordinary moments also to see Judge Clifton Newman show some empathy as well. Dianne Gallagher, really appreciate you being on the ground there. Thank you so much for your great reporting. Let's talk more about this. And joining me now is criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Bernarda Villalona. Also with us is Sarah Ford. She is a former prosecutor and current legal director for the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network. Sarah, I mean first to you, I just want to get your reaction to what played out in court this morning, specifically some of those very personal comments from Judge Newman. Let's listen to more of that that first.


NEWMAN: It's also particularly troubling, Mr. Murdaugh, because as a member of the legal community and a well-known member of the legal community, you've practiced law before me and we've seen each other at various occasions throughout the years. And it was especially heartbreaking for me to see you gone, go in the media from being a grieving father who lost a wife and a son to being the person indicted and convicted of killing them.


WALKER: Sarah, what did you make of what he had to say?

SARAH FORD, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Good morning. I think that what Judge Newman had to say was incredibly, almost poetic. You could see how genuine he was and how troubled he was to be presiding over this case and imposing sentence on Alex Murdaugh who had appeared in front of him as an attorney and then to sentence him to life in prison, consecutive sentences for the murder of Maggie and Paul.

You could see how it had impacted him. You know, Alex Murdaugh was an incredible lawyer in South Carolina, very well respected. And to see the fall from grace in this courtroom today and to hear how Judge Newman characterized that and spoke directly to Alex about, you know, his family, you know, his experience with Alex and how, as he's imposing the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, you know, how he was so moving.

For those of us who've been watching the trial, it's so moving to see that because oftentimes we don't get to see that from judges. And Judge Newman has been just a consummate professional and incredible judge and to hear the way that he spoke on behalf of the victims as well was very important.

WALKER: Yes, that was very measured, but also extremely compelling, as you say. And he clearly knew that a family he said that they were a lovely family and knew Alex Murdaugh as being a likable, gregarious person. That was the word he used. Bernarda, the judge also talked about the death penalty. He said, look, I don't question the prosecution not seeking the death penalty and this, but why didn't the prosecution do so?


BERNARDA VILLALONA, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The Judge Newman sent a powerful message with his sentencing, especially for him to have noted that this crime here of killing two people was death penalty eligible. And in terms of the prosecution did not seek the death penalty, so he wouldn't have been able to sentence Alex Murdaugh to death.

But what I need to point out is that by Judge Newman saying, look, I'm not questioning why you didn't seek the death penalty, but I would just note that the Murdaugh family has controlled justice in this county for over a century. And during that time, the Murdaugh family, as solicitors, has requested a death penalty for far less crime, something as far less brutal than these two murders.

So for Alex Murdaugh, his privilege, his wealth, his power, his name actually saved his life.

WALKER: Yes, I mean the judge mentioned that, right, that there were other people who have been convicted on much lesser crimes who got the death penalty in that courtroom. Sarah, what about, you know, obviously we're expecting an appeal, right, from Alex Murdaugh and his team. How will that process play out and under what circumstances or what will the basis be, you think, for such an appeal?

FORD: I think that Alex Murdaugh and his team will throw everything they can into that appeal, particularly the admission of the 404B evidence, the financial crimes which was obviously much discussed, and Creighton Waters his team spend a long time presenting that evidence. But I do believe that Judge Newman did make the right call at

admitting that evidence. Certainly that will be the subject of an appeal as well as a post-conviction relief appeal that Alex Murdaugh will be likely claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.

There are two separate issues that he can take up, obviously, post sentencing here today, that will be a long road ahead for Alex Murdaugh. But I do believe that the decisions that Judge Newman made in this trial, while they were difficult decisions they were certainly the right decisions in my estimation.

WALKER: Speaking of decision, let's talk about the verdict and Bernarda, to you, I mean, it was pretty surprising, at least, you know, from my point of view, when I got the alert last night on my phone that the verdict had come down so quickly. And we did hear from a juror who said it only took about 45 minutes to basically get everyone on the same page because I think he mentioned that there were two people who were not guilty, one that was undecided. Do we have sound guides from the juror speaking with ABC News? Let's listen to what he had to say first.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you first got in the room, you took a vote.

CRAIG MOYER, JUROR IN MURDAUGH TRIAL: It was two not guilty, one not sure, and nine guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was your vote?

MOYER: Guilty. We started deliberating going through the evidence, and everybody was pretty much talking. And I don't know about 45 minutes later, we -- after all our deliberating, we figured it out.


WALKER: I mean, they emerged after three hours, but he says it was about 45 minutes to come to that decision. How do you react to that, Bernarda? And are you surprised? What do you think the conversations sound like in these deliberation rows?

VILLALONA: Exactly. So what I was surprised about is the quickness of the verdict, not the actual verdict itself having been a former homicide prosecutor, I've tried numerous of homicide, so I know the weaknesses and the strengths of the case and also understand that not every investigation is perfect. So while CSI and law and order gives you this different view of how a trial should take place, it's not reality.

And then for this jury, I think they had their minds made up for the most part after Alex Murdaugh testified, because it was a complete game changer for the deliberation process, because you usually want to hear what does the defendant have to say? You know, did he do it? Did he not do it? Well, let me focus on the prosecution evidence. And when you look at six weeks of testimony, six weeks of examination without any notes, I think they went with the strongest pieces of evidence they went with their gut reaction, their gut feelings and how the testimony made them feel.

And it quickly led them to a guilty verdict because they were that far convinced. In the end, Alex Murdaugh couldn't get past that big lie of being at the kennels. And that big lie, I think it was insurmountable for the defense.


WALKER: Sarah, lastly, I mean, there -- we cannot -- we have to mention that there are so many other cases and investigations and indictments and charges, right, that need to either be tried or that remain open. I mean, first off, we heard the judge mentioned that there are 99 other separate charges that he's going to have to try related to his alleged Alex Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes.

But on top of that, you know, there's also this 2015 case that I don't want to, you know, forget of Steven Smith, right? Because his death investigation was reopened in the course of the double murder investigation there at Moselle, so, I mean, where do all these cases go from here? Start with the financial crimes and of course, you know, specifically the 2015 case.

FORD: Judge Newman indicated that he is ready to get started on that. You know, he's been assigned these cases and is ready for, you know, those victims to have their day in court. So I anticipate that the, you know, Attorney General will be moving very quickly to determine the arrangement of what cases will be tried next and to determine if, you know, Alex Murdaugh will intend to plead guilty.

I wouldn't expect that, but I do think that they're going to be working with that quickly. And certainly regarding Steven Smith's death investigation, I do think that is a priority for South Carolina law enforcement divisions. And I do have hope that, you know, there are people out there that may have information on that. And I do believe that SLED is working on that.

And I do hope that we will get answers for his mother Sandy and their family, because it is absolutely tragic, the number of victims that are just related to Alex Murdaugh and his crimes. It's tremendous. And those victims deserve to be heard. They deserve to have their day in court and they deserve justice.

WALKER: Yes. And hopefully the family, the adult children of Gloria Satterfield, the housekeeper who died in the Murdaugh home tripping and falling allegedly over a dog to her death, they will get answers as well. Bernarda Villalona and Sarah Ford, we really appreciate you. Thank you so much for the conversation.

And stay with us because we do expect to hear from Alex Murdaugh's defense team very soon. We will be getting their reaction, of course, we will bring it to you as soon as it happens.

Let's turn out to some other big news we've been following this morning, severe weather, more than 110 million Americans under some threat for everything from blizzards to violent thunderstorms and tornadoes coast to coast. People in the mountains of Southern California, they're still buried under several feet of snow. They're now running out of baby formula, food, medicine, and gas. The National Guard has been called in to help Camila Bernal live in San Bernardino County. I mean the pictures are incredible. How are people doing there? What are you hearing?

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, people are frustrated, Amara. They're scared because it's been days and days and they have not been able to get out of the mountain. And officials are saying, look, you're going to have to wait maybe a week, maybe 10 days in order to essentially dig out some of these communities. People are not allowed in or out of the mountains. So there's so much frustration here.

And yes, it does snow in these mountains during the winter, but the past few weeks, it has been unprecedented, with the first ever snow blizzard warning. So, of course, people were just not prepared for the amount of snow that we got. I've been speaking to a number of residents virtually because there's no way to get up the mountain. And the concerns are very similar. They're worried about food. The roof at one of their only supermarkets in the area collapsed because of the snow.

So they're worried about food for themselves, for their pets. They're worried about medicine because the pharmacy is closed and they are tired. They're telling me, look, we -- all we do all day is clean up, and yet we don't feel like there's a lot of progress. So I'm hearing that frustration over and over again. Here is Derek Hayes, one of the residents that I've been speaking to.


DEREK HAYES, STRANDED IN SNOW: There's nowhere to put the snow. There's no way to walk around. And it's, you know, up to my neck in a lot of places. You take a step, you sink all the way down. You have to crawl yourself back out of the snow to try to get on top of it, to even move around.


BERNAL: And the governor declared a state of emergency for this county, San Bernardino and 12 others. The National Guard is expected to be here today, but residents haven't seen a lot of progress, so they're wanting to see more action, Amara?

WALKER: Yes, it's been tough watching some of the social media videos that have been posted and are going viral, with people calling for help, saying that they need help just digging out of their homes, let alone getting some basic supplies. Camila Bernal, appreciate your reporting. Thank you.

So the storm system that dumped all that snow in California is on the move, pushing through the Southern Plains and into the Deep South. Unleashing tornadoes, golf ball sized hail, and powerful winds. You're looking here at tornado damage in Pickton, Texas. The storm also causing widespread power outages. This morning, more than 120,000 homes and businesses are still without power.


And take a look at this video from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Hundreds of flights had to be canceled, yes, because of that storm, as you can see. In the Dallas suburb of Little Elm, the facade of a shopping plaza collapsing onto parked cars during the storm. Louisiana also taking a hit from a powerful tornado. And Carlos Suarez is live in Shreveport, Louisiana with the damage that you are seeing, we can see it right there behind you. Hi, Carlos.

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Amara. So the cleanup effort here in Shreveport is well underway. Right now, crews, they're clearing out some of this debris. They've already started to make some repairs to some roofs, and they're, of course, starting the process of meeting with insurance adjusters to try to move forward.

Now, the damage here is not as widespread. On our drive in, this is the worst of it, there's one block here saw a number of businesses get hit by this tornado. This one right here was probably the one that didn't do as well as any other one. We're talking about a laundry mat. You can see the sign of this place that fell from that roof and hit that car.

There's a gas station across the street that was also hit by this tornado. And as you can imagine, the folks out here, they were quite antsy. They were incredibly worried about the fact that they got this emergency alert last night.

The National Weather Service out here had been telling them for days that this bad weather would be making their way out here. In fact, we're told that there were several people inside of this laundry mat yesterday when that emergency alert went out. There was one man who told us a woman inside was worried about coming out to get her children that she left inside of a car.

The man told her, look, ma'am, it is way too dangerous out there. The winds were coming in. It was starting to rain, and so they waited inside. That's when that tornado ended up hitting. Now, we talked to the mayor of Shreveport earlier this morning. He said he's in contact with the governor. The governor has told him whatever resources the city needs, they're going to make available. But he did say that he felt that because the damage wasn't as widespread, it wasn't as serious as they feared it might be, that they were going to make do with what they have. Here is some other items that he noted for us.


MAYOR TOM ARCENEAUX, SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA: -- not having. So we're grateful for that. The area around me, I'm sure you can see behind me, this is -- this kind of looks like it was ground zero. The greatest amount of damage is right in this little area, but there is some residential damage in the neighborhood to the west of us. And there's a pretty good bit of damage in the neighborhood south broadband neighborhood to the east of us. I talked to the governor, actually, I got a text from the governor before 6 o'clock this morning offering any assistance that he could have.


SUAREZ: Amara, the good news in all of this is there are no reports of anyone being injured in the Shreveport area this morning. The number of folks that woke up without power was about 1,100 in this neighborhood here. That number is now down to about 108 or -- we got 108 or so at last check. The hope is they're going to be able to get all these folks back online throughout the day. Amara?

WALKER: Well, there's some good news there, but really just so much extreme weather coast to coast. Carlos Suarez, appreciate you. Thank you. Let's go now to Chad Myers in the Weather Center. Gosh, so much to talk about, Chad, where do we start? Where is it all going?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's not over. I mean we are still seeing the potential for severe weather into Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama later tonight into Georgia. And Nashville just on your western doorstep here the next line of storms for you. This is the area that I'm most concerned about. We're seeing winds about 60 to 70 miles per hour with some of these storms, even if there's not a tornado, a 70 miles per hour wind can do damage in your neighborhood. Make sure everything is tied down, brought in, make sure the pets are inside, the people are inside. All of the property is taken care of.

There has been six inches of rainfall in some spots with flash flood warnings still going on right now. Water is still coming up. This is the area we're worried about today still for the potential for severe weather. Just maybe not you're in the orange, don't worry about it. If you're in the yellow, still worry about it. This is still a large area of weather that will move through the area tonight.

And then on the north side, yes, that's snow. Detroit, you might see a foot of snow, some of the western suburbs, maybe even a little bit more than that. Boston, by tomorrow morning, you look at about eight to 10. That will be the biggest snowfall of the year. Amara?

WALKER: Oh, wow. All right, Chad Myers, good to see you. Thank you so much.


Well, a congressional committee opens an investigation into one of its members. New York Republican George Santos has questions to answer about his background and campaign operations.


WALKER: A man accused of threatening to kill Jewish officials in Michigan is set to appear in court this afternoon. The FBI says a tweet traced back to Jack Carpenter threatened to kill anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan government.


Authorities say Carpenter also made posts in support of, quote, unquote, sovereign citizens, a movement the FBI calls a form of domestic terrorism. Joining me now with more on this is CNN's Omar Jimenez.