COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A judge will determine whether evidence of disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes are admissible in an upcoming double-murder trial that has drawn worldwide attention for its bizarre twists.
Prosecutors recently said that Murdaugh killed his wife and youngest son last year to gain sympathy and distract others from his damning financial crimes. On Friday, prosecutors and defense attorneys debated the relevance of those years of alleged financial misdeeds that lined Murdaugh’s pockets with nearly $9 million.
Murdaugh, the disgraced heir to a Lowcountry legal dynasty, has pleaded not guilty and repeatedly denied any involvement in the June 2021 slayings of his wife, Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, 22.
According to prosecutors, at the time of the killings, Murdaugh was terrified about a pending motion that threatened to expose years of substantial debts and illicit financial crimes by revealing his personal records. Such a move would have spelled “personal, legal, and financial ruin” for Murdaugh, state grand jury chief prosecutor Creighton Waters wrote in a filing Thursday.
Prosecutors said Murdaugh was a drug addict who helped run a money laundering and painkiller ring and stole millions from settlements he secured for mostly poor clients to fund an increasingly unsustainable lifestyle.
According to Waters, high-profile, six-figure cases had failed to alleviate Murdaugh's financial woes, prompting Murdaugh to do anything to avoid his “day of reckoning” — including murder.
Conveniently for Murdaugh, Waters said, the discovery of his slain family members temporarily suspended the increased scrutiny over his finances. Murdaugh would spend the following days collecting money to account for missing fees sought by his law firm, Waters said.
“This is a white collar case that culminated in murders," Waters told Circuit Judge Clifton Newman on Friday.
A motive is not necessary for a prosecutor to win a murder conviction — a point Waters made in the state's latest filing. But Murdaugh's lawyers asked the state to spell out the motive in order to justify including a million pages of evidence related to over 80 counts of alleged financial crimes.
Murdaugh’s defense attorneys insisted Friday that the alleged crimes amounted to character evidence that is not admissible into murder trials.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin said it is ridiculous to claim that a person seeking to distract from financial crimes would then put themself at the center of a murder investigation.
Griffin also said there is no reason to admit the financial documents since there’s no evidence that Murdaugh’s family knew of any alleged crimes or that Murdaugh stood to benefit from collecting any life insurance policies.
The idea that Murdaugh sought to engender sympathy through the deaths is also illogical, according to Griffin, considering Murdaugh's father was dying on the day they were slain — an experience sure to provide plenty of pity.
The defense has criticized what they see as the slow release of evidence linking Murdaugh to the slayings.
Central to the defense's concerns is the presence of blood stains on a white T-shirt allegedly worn by Murdaugh on the night of the killings. Attorney Dick Harpootlian has argued that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents successfully persuaded a forensic consultant to reverse his initial judgment and instead say the stains must be backspatter from a bullet wound. Harpootlian said SLED destroyed the shirt and had evidence suggesting the stains were not a human's blood.
Defense attorneys on Friday sought an evidentiary hearing compelling the state to provide all communications with the consultant. Prosecutors said any ruling on the bloody shirt's consideration would be premature as they themselves are still assessing whether they will use it as evidence.
Throughout Friday’s hearing, Murdaugh, donning a blazer, sat unshackled and could occasionally be seen speaking with his attorneys.
Prosecutors shared inklings of new details earlier this week. Within a minute of his first conversation with responding officers on the day of the killings, Murdaugh allegedly claimed the slaying must have been connected to the February 2019 boat wreck that killed teenager Mallory Beach.
Beach was killed when authorities say an intoxicated Paul Murdaugh wrecked his father's boat — an event that ultimately led to dozens of charges accusing Alex Murdaugh of stealing nearly $5 million in settlement money from lawyers who sued him over the death. Murdaugh now faces additional charges involving money laundering, a narcotics ring, a staged attempt on his life and millions of additional stolen funds.
And while Murdaugh seemed wealthy, prosecutors said it was a series of land deals worsened by recession that “permanently changed his finances.”
The events of the past 18 months have marked a steep fall for the Murdaughs. The family founded a massive civil law firm over 100 years ago in tiny Hampton County, where — alongside four surrounding counties — Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather dominated the legal scene as the area’s elected prosecutors for more than eight decades.
“The jury will need to understand the distinction between who Alex Murdaugh appeared to be to the outside world — a successful lawyer and scion of the most prominent family in the region — and who he was in the real life only he fully knew — an allegedly crooked lawyer and drug user who borrowed and stole wherever he could to stay afloat and one step ahead of the detection,” Waters wrote Thursday.
James 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.