When Mandy Matney graduated from journalism school at the University of Kansas in 2012 and her parents asked her to choose a celebratory vacation spot, she picked Hilton Head, South Carolina. During that trip, Matney remembers glancing at the local newspaper and thinking how nice it would be to have a job there. “They’re talking about alligators and all these cool things,” she remembers thinking.
“And then it happened!” Matney says, speaking from her Hilton Head home. After disappointing reporting stints in Missouri and Illinois, the Kansas native came to Hilton Head in 2016 as a reporter for The Island Packet. “I think I was drawn to this area for some reason,” she reminisces, adding, “I feel like it was kind of the universe telling me to come here.”
Several years later, Matney was covering a story much more predatory than alligators—the trial and conviction of prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh for the 2021 killings of his wife, Maggie, and their 22-year-old son, Paul. She had already been delving into the Murdaugh family’s influence and corruption: In 2019, 19-year-old Mallory Beach was killed in a boating accident in which Paul was driving, inebriated. These crimes opened a floodgate of investigations into Alex Murdaugh’s massive financial improprieties, and eventually led Matney to launch “Murdaugh Murders Podcast”—a career trajectory she recounts in Blood on Their Hands: Murder, Corruption, and the Fall of the Murdaugh Dynasty.
“You have to be the person to say something when you see that something isn’t right.”
Matney likens the Murdaugh case to a “superstorm that we can’t get out of,” acknowledging, “I kind of do miss my life before it was just constant chaos and absurdity.” After a bit of a break this summer, the Murdaugh story has heated up again, with Murdaugh asking for a new trial and his lawyers wrangling over whether the state or federal government should control the remainder of his assets. Throughout the myriad developments in the case, Matney has found the national press coverage to be “eye opening.” While she’s seen “a lot of really great journalism,” she acknowledges that she’s also been disappointed with reporters who “take the easiest, goriest, most salacious angle of the story and roll with it,” which is “the opposite of what I want to do.”
Cognizant of the swirling sea of media being produced about the family—books, documentaries and more—Matney and co-author Carolyn Murnick decided to frame their offering as her own “memoir based on four years of reporting,” a sort of story-behind-the-story that provides new material for even Matney’s most faithful podcast fans. It’s meant to be inspiring to other journalists, and, as Matney notes, “It’s the book that I would have wanted to have 10 years ago when I started my journalism career.”
“It’s kind of a whole new layer of vulnerability for me to tell all these [personal] stories,” she says, comparing her process to “taking an ice cream scoop to my insides” and revealing “those deep-down things that you don’t want to talk about and you don’t want to deal with.”
Matney grew up watching “Dateline” and “20/20″ with her mother, and remembers following the O.J. Simpson case when she was a kindergartner “because my mom was so into it.” She writes that although her first two jobs were soul-sucking (“I cried often”), her saving grace came in the form of nights spent listening to WBEZ’s “Serial” and watching Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” while dreaming of “doing something as inspiring.”
Unfortunately, Matney’s job at The Island Packet was overshadowed by a misogynistic editor she refers to by the pseudonym “Charles Gardiner” in her memoir. When, for example, Matney got access to key files related to the strange 2015 hit-and-run death of a young man named Stephen Smith, potentially linked to the Murdaughs, Gardiner luridly asked, “What did you do to get that file?” Matney reflects, “I don’t think people talk enough about bosses being mentally abusive, and how much that affects your entire life and your work.”
Thankfully, she partnered with a savvy, supportive colleague, Liz Farrell (with whom she still collaborates) to follow their instincts in the Murdaugh story, even as their editor tried to discourage them. Matney believes that their outsiders’ perspectives added fuel to their reporting—they weren’t used to “this system of good old boys just running amok and doing whatever they wanted.” She adds, “I think a lot of people have a really hard time imagining that a guy who looks like Alex can do these things. But that’s a big point that I think we all need to realize is that there are people like Alex, who are manipulators and narcissists, and we can’t be fooled by them. . . .You have to be the person to say something when you see that something isn’t right, because they will—like Alex did—destroy everyone in their wake.” Just a few days before our conversation, Matney reveals, she stood a few feet away from Murdaugh during a federal hearing. “It’s bone-chilling,” she says. “It’s not fun for me to be in his presence.”
“It’s the book that I would have wanted to have 10 years ago when I started my journalism career.”
Matney’s memoir also addresses the toll that the case has taken on her mental health. “No one really told me when you start digging into stories that are this dark, and communicating often with victims of really horrific crimes, you are carrying a load that is unbearable at times. People need to talk about that.”
On a brighter note, Blood on Their Hands also chronicles how she and David Moses (then her boyfriend, now her husband) began their Murdaugh podcast. “It’s not this easy process where a microphone comes out of nowhere and just magically puts your words into a podcast and it sounds beautiful. It’s very frustrating at the beginning. . . . I’m not ashamed of the fact that our first few episodes sounded very rough. I want other people to know that it’s OK to start something and not be perfect at it. . . . I think that that’s been a big reason why a lot of our fans have been really attached to our podcast.” Matney loves podcasting, especially because “journalism is so different when you own your own business and you can actually do and say the things that you want.” Five years ago, she says, “I could never have dreamed of doing this with my husband in my house studio.”
Blood on Their Hands will surely satisfy true crime fans. And with Matney’s acknowledgment of the grinding work and mental toll her investigation demanded—to wit, “interviews with over one hundred sources, as well as hundreds of pages of legal filings, police reports, social media posts, and court transcripts”—the book is also a powerful tribute to journalism’s ability to hold the powerful to account.