BEAUFORT, S.C. (AP) — Alex Murdaugh appeared publicly for the first time since his murder trial at a Thursday state court hearing over the slew of financial crimes allegedly committed by the disbarred South Carolina attorney.
The man found guilty this March of fatally shooting his wife and youngest son in June 2021 got a fleeting break from the maximum-security prison where he is serving a life sentence without parole. The prosecution and defense agreed Thursday that some of the 101 total charges brought against Murdaugh will be heard at a trial beginning the week of Nov. 27.
Murdaugh sat in an orange jumpsuit, occasionally whispering with his lawyers, as he learned how he will spend the week after Thanksgiving.
It won't be long before Murdaugh finds himself back in another courtroom. A federal hearing over a similar bevy of charges is scheduled next Thursday in Charleston. There, Murdaugh is expected to plead guilty to theft and wire fraud — possibly marking the first time he will have legally taken responsibility for any of the criminal counts that have piled up since he first reported his family members' deaths over two years ago.
Adding to the saga's twists are recent allegations that the court clerk improperly influenced the jury in the murder case. In a request for a new trial filed last week, defense attorneys accused Rebecca Hill of telling jurors not to trust Murdaugh's testimony and pressuring them to quickly deliver a verdict.
The murder trial cast a shadow over the Thursday proceeding. Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian asked that the state trial wait until they finish litigating the federal case and the matter of jury tampering. He argued it would be difficult to get a fair trial within a year of the widely watched murder trial's conclusion.
“Where are you going to get a jury? Mars?” Harpootlian told Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman.
Newman, the same judge who presided over the nearly six-week murder trial earlier this year, said the indictments were issued across many counties home to people capable of serving on a jury. He said he would not presume that jurors could not be assembled.
Murdaugh has been indicted for taking $8.8 million in legal settlements from clients who were badly injured or the families of those killed on the job. Victims included the family housekeeper who died in a fall at the Murdaugh home. He is also accused of stealing nearly $7 million from his law firm over a nine-year period during which he made almost $14 million.
Other charges relate to an eight-year drug ring and money laundering scheme that prosecutors say involved $2.4 million in checks written to a friend who used some of the money on a painkiller distribution network.
He faces an additional nine counts of tax evasion for allegedly ducking just under $487,000 in state incomes taxes. Convictions would carry up to five years in prison for each count.
Also pending Thursday were case updates for two men who have already been found guilty in federal court for assisting with those plots. The alleged co-conspirators cycled into court separately one after the other to learn what their futures would hold.
The judge held off setting a trial date for the 21 state charges against Russell Laffitte. The ex-CEO of Palmetto State Bank was sentenced in August to seven years in federal prison for helping Murdaugh steal nearly $2 million from clients. A jury last November found him guilty of six federal charges related to wire and bank fraud.
An old college friend of Murdaugh's got a 10-year state prison term that will run alongside a federal sentence and another 10-year state prison term that will run consecutively. Cory Fleming pleaded guilty last month to 23 state charges that he helped steal millions of dollars in settlements from the sons of the family's housekeeper. The former attorney had recently been sentenced to nearly four years in prison on similar federal charges. The judge in that case said he would tell Newman that no more time behind bars should result from the state charges.
Lawyers representing the victims asked the judge for additional penalties to deter future deception from lawyers tempted to betray disadvantaged clients. State prosecutor Creighton Waters said Fleming “should not get buy-one-get-one-free” and sought consecutive state sentences. The state court needs to have a say, too, he said.
“To be a con man, it depends on trust. It depends on reputation. It depends on the inherent reliability of having a law license on your wall,” Waters said.
The defense said Fleming's 29 years of upstanding legal work documented by other lawyers’ testimony should not be overshadowed by a “lapse in judgment.” The defense argued that two separate state and federal sentences for the same conduct would not be necessary.
Standing in the very courtroom where he said he said he saw up close practicing law how criminal behavior can change one's life, Fleming apologized to the families and profession whose trust he said he betrayed.
“Despite knowing this firsthand, I made some very bad decisions and broke the law,” Fleming said.
Newman said he would not defer to the federal court when making decisions. Throughout a judicial career spanning over 20 years, he added, he had never sentenced a lawyer until Murdaugh came before him this March.
He called Fleming's case “unprecedented” and “the greatest crime for a lawyer” in South Carolina history. Fleming faced as many as 195 years in prison, he noted.
“I cannot imagine anyone going to a lawyer in South Carolina at this moment and having complete trust in what a lawyer says to them,” Newman said.
Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
James Pollard, The Associated Press