In any other small South Carolina town, the brutal shooting of two long-time residents, a mother and her son, would be cause for a flurry of activity — a hastily planned candlelight vigil, an outpouring of support and flower arrangements, a cry out for swift justice and closure.
But Hampton is not any other small South Carolina town. It is a town conflicted, struggling with history both distant and recent. Its hurt, confusion and suspicions are still raw.
And so Tuesday, as word spread of the deaths of 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Maggie, reaction was muted. The prevailing emotion was hesitancy, not surprise or outrage.
Of course, the Murdaughs are not just any family, especially in Hampton. They are a powerhouse legal family, three generations of whom have been state prosecutors. The family has practiced law in and around Hampton County for more than a century, building a legal empire on personal injury lawsuits that is today headquartered in a sprawling three-story brick building in the heart of downtown Hampton.
“They are the law around here,” said one man who asked not to be identified.
A previous death, and the circumstances around it, has caused residents to re-evaluate their faith in the law.
In 2019, a marine crash near Beaufort claimed the life of 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Paul Murdaugh was indicted on three felony charges related to boating under the influence during the crash. He pleaded not guilty and those charges and two lawsuits related to the crash were unresolved prior to Murdaugh’s death.
A lag between the time of the crash and the charges against Murdaugh, as well as the fact that Murdaugh was allowed to remain free and travel in-state while the case was pending, roiled residents who wanted justice. It raised tough questions about power, fairness and accountability.
That’s a lot for a little town of about 2,500 people where people know each other’s birthdays and upcoming medical procedures, so when Tuesday’s news of the double homicide started making the rounds, residents seemed unsure what to say, or whether they should say anything at all about a family that looms so large.
Around 10:45 a.m., an employee at Julienn’s Espresso Cafe read news coverage aloud to a small group of patrons, some of whom shook their heads at details of the homicides.
At lunchtime, customers at Coconut’s Restaurants spoke in hushed tones and jerked their heads up each time the door opened.
Some shared the last time they saw one of the Murdaughs. But up and down Lee Street, no one would speak about the deaths, certainly not on the record to a reporter.
Staff at the flower shops in town said they hadn’t yet received any calls for sympathy arrangements for the family.
One person did offer that they hoped an outside law enforcement agency would be involved in the investigation. Another admitted being on the phone most of the morning discussing what they had heard about the killings.
A third seemed to capture the town’s pain best.
Would catching the person who killed the Murdaughs mean justice for them? What about justice for Beach?
“What is justice in all of this?” he asked.