Judge again denies bond for prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A prominent South Carolina attorney whose wife and son were found shot to death at the home where the family’s housekeeper also died will likely remain in jail for many months now that a judge has again denied bond pending his insurance fraud trial.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman initially denied Alex Murdaugh bond on Oct. 19, but asked Murdaugh’s lawyers to send him a report on his mental condition from professionals, including those involved in his monthlong stay to get treatment for an addiction to opioids.
The judge’s order said that after reviewing the report for more than two weeks, he did not change his mind that Murdaugh’s considerable financial resources and mental instability make it too risky to allow him to remain free until trial on charges he stole $3.4 million insurance money meant to go to his dead housekeeper’s sons.
“After considering the arguments of counsel, the evaluation submitted, then pending charges and other investigations, and the apparent character and mental condition of the defendant, the Court finds that the Defendant is a danger both to himself and his community,” Newman wrote.
Murdaugh’s lawyers Wednesday asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to overturn Newman’s decision, saying the state constitution guarantees bond for everyone except people charged with violent offenses or ones punishable by life in prison. The petition also said that a psychiatrist who examined Murdaugh found he was not a danger to himself or the community.
The ruling issued late Tuesday could mean months or even years behind bars until the 53-year-old lawyer, a member of one of South Carolina’s most prominent legal families, gets his day in court.
Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all elected prosecutors for tiny Hampton County. The family’s law firm, located in the most impressive building in town after the courthouse, has spent a century winning multimillion-dollar verdicts.
Still unsolved are the killings that intensified the scrutiny into Murdaugh and his family. According to his 911 call, he returned home one night in June to find his wife, Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, 22 shot to death. Five months later, state police have not named any suspects nor ruled anyone out.
Murdaugh’s lawyers had asked the judge to release Murdaugh on his own recognizance, like another judge did in September pending a separate trial on charges that he tried to arrange his own death so his surviving son could get a $10 million insurance payout. Prosecutors had asked for a $200,000 bond and GPS monitoring.
The fraud charges keeping Murdaugh in jail involve two insurance payments that were supposed to go to the sons of his longtime housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, who died in 2018 a few weeks after falling at the family’s home, investigators said. Both of these felonies — obtaining property by false pretenses — carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Murdaugh told Satterfield’s sons he would help them get settlements for her death, recommending they hire an attorney who was a family friend without telling them about the relationship, according to a lawsuit filed by the sons.
Murdaugh negotiated more than $4 million in payments, then had the checks — minus fees and attorney payments — sent to a fraudulent bank account, investigators said.
The attorneys for Satterfield’s family said they are glad to see Murdaugh is not getting special treatment from the judicial system.
“Since the original bond hearing, Alex Murdaugh has taken financial actions which clearly show that he has no respect for the judicial process, legitimate creditors and victims of his criminal activities and that the ordinary rules do not apply to him,” attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter said in a statement.
Murdaugh was arrested for the first time in September after making another 911 call. He initially told police someone shot at him after he had a flat tire on a lonely road and the bullet grazed his head.
He later told investigators Curtis “Eddie” Smith agreed to kill him, with nothing offered in exchange, authorities said. Smith, meanwhile, said his friend Murdaugh called him for help without being specific on Sept. 4 and when he saw Murdaugh with the gun, he tried to grab it and it fired.
Both Murdaugh and Smith were indicted by a grand jury in Hampton County last week on charge of conspiracy, false claim for payment and filing a false police report. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges.
The two insurance cases are not the only seven-figure stolen money investigations involving Murdaugh that state police are handling. Murdaugh’s former law firm — founded by his great-grandfather a century ago — has accused him of stealing possibly millions of dollars.
And Murdaugh lost control of his finances last week after a judge in a wrongful death lawsuit ruled the attorney and his family appeared to be trying to hide millions of dollars that could be collected in legal actions. That judge tore up a power of attorney agreement that gave control over all of Murdaugh’s money and legal affairs to his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh.
The family of a 19-year-old girl who died in a boat crash in 2019 sued the Murdaugh family; Paul Murdaugh was facing charges of boating under the influence causing death when he was shot to death.
The independent lawyers monitoring Alex Murdaugh’s affairs have already asked the court to stop any payment to Murdaugh’s brother, who said he is owed $90,000 he loaned to help his brother make payroll and go to rehab before his initial arrest, and to Murdaugh’s former law firm, which said it loaned him $470,000 in 2021 before determining he was stealing money.
Both lawsuits over the debts were filed after lawyers in the wrongful death suit asked for the independent monitors.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.