Cory Fleming, who helped convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh embezzle millions of dollars, is appealing his more than 13-year prison sentence, saying it is excessive, “cruel and unusual” and the result of “bias” in the sentencing judge.
“Sentences that are grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime are unconstitutional,” says the notice of appeal, filed with the S.C Court of Appeals.
Fleming’s lawyer, Debbie Barbier, who filed the notice of appeal with co-counsel Elizabeth Franklin-Best, said Friday, “We do not believe that Mr. Fleming received a fair sentence in state court and intend to raise significant procedural and constitutional issues to the S.C. Court of Appeals.”
The S.C. Attorney General’s office has yet to file a response.
The appeal notice says that at Fleming’s Sept. 14 sentencing, Judge Clifton Newman compared the embezzlement scheme Fleming orchestrated with Murdaugh with a recent South Carolina case of a mother who received 37 years in prison for murdering her child.
Fleming’s and Murdaugh’s crime involved a complex but non-violent scheme that resulted in the theft of $4.3 million from the estate of Murdaugh’s late housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.
The appeal notice also contended that Newman gave Fleming an excessive sentence because Newman had been influenced by the experience of presiding over Murdaugh’s double murder trial in Colleton County earlier this year.
That trial resulted in a jury finding Murdaugh, a disbarred lawyer, guilty of murdering his wife and son. Newman also allowed the jury in the murder case to hear evidence of Murdaugh’s extensive history of thievery, including in the Satterfield case.
The appeal notes that Newman said at the Sept. 14 hearing that, “there’s no way there is a case in this state where the amount of thievery exceeded what’s occurred in this case.”
Newman was apparently referring the Murdaugh’s total amount of stealing from his law firm, colleagues and clients over the years — an amount estimated by federal prosecutors to be up to $10.5 million.
The appeal notice quotes Judge Newman saying at the Sept. 14 hearing that Murdaugh’s thefts including from Satterfield’s estate were “the greatest crime for a lawyer in the history of the state of South Carolina, certainly in the number of years being faced and the impact of the crimes on the citizens of the state.”
At the Sept. 14 hearing, Newman also said all the financial crimes — including money laundering and breach of trust — made Fleming eligible for a total of 195 years in prison.
Although prosecutors at the hearing didn’t state an exact number of years they wanted, it was clear from their general remarks they wanted Fleming to get substantially more than 10 years.
In an argument to Newman at Fleming’s Sept. 14 sentencing hearing, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters argued that Fleming should get a severe sentence because of his abuse of the judicial system and his law license.
Fleming had also admitted to conspiring with Murdaugh to embezzle from a client as far back as 2012 in addition to his helping Murdaugh loot the Satterfield estate, Waters told the judge. Waters emphasized that Fleming’s theft of Satterfield’s money was not just a one-time event.
Barbier also asked Newman to have Fleming’s state sentence to run concurrent with a 46-month federal sentence that received from U.S. Judge Richard Gergel for federal versions of the state crimes.
In the appeal, Barbier also pointed out that Newman ignored pertinent information, including Gergel’s remarks during the federal sentencing, that might have allowed Newman to give Fleming a lighter sentence.
During that hearing, Gergel told the audience he did not think Fleming deserved to spend more than 46 months in prison.
Gergel said that by sentencing Fleming to 46 months in prison, he was attempting “to impose a full sentence, not a partial sentence, a full sentence.”
Newman told the audience at Fleming’s state sentencing hearing that he deliberately did not read a transcript of Gergel’s remarks, even though Gergel had said he wanted the state judge to know what happened in his court.
“The one thing that I did not review is Judge Gergel’s transcript. As much as I admire him and his capabilities as a federal judge and the great work that he does, I don’t defer to the federal court system for — in making my decisions,” Newman said.
Other SC crooked lawyers
The appeal notice didn’t mention other sentences that other crooked South Carolina lawyers have received in the recent years and how Fleming’s sentence compared with theirs. But a review of some high profile recent cases shows:
▪ In 2014 Lexington County lawyer Richard Breibart got a 5-year sentence in federal prison for stealing several clients’ life savings, an amount said to be at least $2.5 million. Briebart’s had persuaded 13 clients that they were in danger of losing their savings to the IRS but he would keep their money safe.
▪ In 2018 former State Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, who worked as a lawyer, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after a Richland County jury found him guilty of misconduct and perjury, offenses stemming from Harrison’s unlawful failure to disclose about $900,000 over 13 years he received from the Richard Quinn & Associates consulting firm while chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
▪ In 2019 former 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, a lawyer, was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison for stealing some $44,000 in tax dollars for personal use while he was in the solicitor’s office.
At the Sept. 14 hearing, Barbier stressed to the judge that Fleming accepted responsibility for his crimes and expressed remorse — two factors that usually get leniency from a judge at sentencing.
Fleming told Newman just before being sentenced that he had apologized to his family, his friends, his fellow lawyers and the judicial system for “betraying” everyone.
“He (Fleming) has confronted his actions. He has stepped up to the plate. He has fully acknowledged that he was wrong, that he committed illegal acts, and that he is guilty,” Barbier told Newman.