Tangled stories of love and murder drip like Spanish moss from the live oaks in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, marking the stillness of time. Memories going back a hundred years cling like the hot, thick air along waterways and salt marshes. Visiting ghosts ride the rhythmic cadences of nighttime cicadas.
But the craggy branches of the stout live oaks in the Lowcountry remain unbending, unswayed — just like stiff justice from a jury of ordinary citizens in a Colleton County courtroom.
At a moment in America when every institution seems to have destroyed its own credibility, our single most precious and important institution held strong last week when a jury guided by common sense — and prayer — took just three hours to find Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and son.
They didn’t even ask for dinner.
At a time in America when our political system seems irretrievably broken and our government runs amok with power and money, our jury system of ordinary citizens held. It stands as a shining beacon guiding our way forward.
For more than a hundred years, the Murdaugh family represented government power and justice in that part of South Carolina. A family portrait had to be removed from the courthouse walls during the trial so as not to influence the jury.
But in the end, the powerful Murdaugh political machine was no match for a jury of ordinary citizens fearlessly carrying out their sacred constitutional duty.
When we talk about citizenship, we most often think of voting. And when we talk about serving our country, we most often think of military service. But equally important to citizenship and just as vital to national security is jury duty.
Without fair justice, what is a country worth fighting for?
As Frederick Douglass wrote, “the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the Ballot-box, the Jury-box and the Cartridge-box.”
Wise juries of our peers don’t just protect the accused from the heavy hand of government. They also ensure peace for all by delivering justice to criminal tyrants who threaten society.
These jurors are not government officials or faceless bureaucrats. They are not politicians. Nor are they lawyers or judges. They don’t have fancy degrees. They are ordinary citizens. And they alone have the awesome power to condemn a fellow citizen to death. Or life in prison. Or two lives in prison — just in case the fellow dies and returns from the dead thinking he might go free.
The jurors of Colleton County sat in judgment to defend our freedoms no less than a soldier going off to war. Of course, they don’t pick up a rifle, leave their family and walk into the hell of war. But they bear the scars of liberty just the same.
At sentencing, Judge Clifton Newman stated that the ghosts of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh would visit their convicted killer at night for the rest of his natural life. Left unsaid is that those same ghosts will haunt those jurors, too.
Their minds will never be free of the carnage they studied for 27 days so that they could, in the end, render fair justice. Imprinted in their memories forever are the images of 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, blasted with a shotgun from below so that his brain was severed clean from the stem of his spine — leaving his face perfectly intact, like one of those rubbery Halloween masks, crumpled and empty of life.
Those are the scars of liberty that the jurors will carry forever.
After the trial, one of the jurors explained how they reached their decision.
“We were all pretty sure we knew what had happened, and we knew who had pulled the trigger,” the juror told a reporter.
“We prayed together,” he said. “We prayed before we went in. We prayed before we came out to give the verdict. That was a huge factor in us being able to sit comfortably with our decision.”
In these dreary times, America’s only hope is the wisdom and integrity of our ordinary citizens.
• Charles Hurt is the opinion editor at The Washington Times.