Editor’s Note: This is a news analysis.
Before Judge Alison Lee set bond at $7 million for disgraced Hampton County attorney Alex Murdaugh on Monday morning, she took a moment to make a statement about media reports (such as this one here) questioning why she — and not the judge who had been assigned to all of Murdaugh’s criminal cases in an act of good faith by the S.C. Supreme Court — was now presiding over matters.
“The reason I’m presiding and not Judge (Clifton) Newman … is because I’m the presiding judge of the state grand jury.”
In other words, this is legal. This is normal. Why are you reading into it? This is how it’s always worked. Stop thinking there’s corruption around every corner.
While we understood the mandate at the time — all state grand jury defendants will appear before the presiding judge of the grand jury for their bond matters — we still questioned it.
Here’s a timeline of why:
- In September, the state Supreme Court made an important statement to the public by assigning Newman to Murdaugh’s criminal cases. Newman’s reputation is solid and his disinterest can be trusted, which is critical in Murdaugh-related cases. It takes a strong person to fight against the political games being played to soften Murdaugh’s fall. Newman seemed like the right guy.
- In October, Newman denied bond to Murdaugh on two charges of Obtaining Property By False Pretenses in the Satterfield case.
- In November, Murdaugh’s attorneys — who sputtered like rusty Cadillacs at the audacity of Newman’s bond denial — filed a writ of habeas corpus with the state Supreme Court. Behind the scenes, sources close to the cases started to tell FITSNews that the attorneys, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, seemed confident Murdaugh would be getting out even though the habeas motion wasn’t on the docket.
- In December 3, the state Supreme Court issued an order that seemed to be relegating Newman to all matters Murdaugh not related to setting bond and assigning that part to Lee, who has apparently been stuck with a label of “low bond-setter.”
To summarize: A judge was put in place to build trust with a wary public. That judge made a decision that wasn’t favorable to Murdaugh. In a bold and very drastic move, Murdaugh’s attorneys seemed to tattle on the judge and tried to go around his decision. That didn’t work, so the public is then told there will be a new judge for bond decisions.
And in that announcement there’s a line that seems to leave open the possibility that the new judge could somehow override the old judge’s decision and p.s. turns out she’s known for setting low bonds.
Lee’s reputation on bonds aside (though it’s obviously worth noting), why did the Supreme Court issue an order telling us about Lee if this is the normal course of action?
On Monday evening we got our answer.
FITSNews had been told repeatedly that Lee’s ruling would not affect Newman’s earlier denial of bond on the two Obtaining Property By False Pretenses charges — and therefore Murdaugh would remain incarcerated on those charges even if he were to be able to make bail in the 48 charges that came out of the state grand jury.
Simple concept to understand, right?
Except it’s not true, as it turns out.
And this was the concern we had the whole time.
At the time of the hearing, Murdaugh faced three charges related to the Labor Day shooting incident, two charges from the Satterfield case and 48 charges from 12 indictments handed down by the grand jury in November and December.
Using regular people math, that would add up to 53 charges.
But, if you haven’t noticed by now, “regular people” math cannot be used when it comes to Murdaugh matters — unless you want your head to explode.
Using Murdaugh Math, the charges add up to 51.
This is because, according to the Attorney General’s office, the two Satterfield charges, attached to two arrest warrants out of Beaufort County, were converted to direct indictments and presented to the state grand jury that way.
Meaning, the charges that fell under Newman’s jurisdiction were now suddenly under Lee’s.
And not one time was this mentioned during Monday’s hearings.
Not one time was this clarification made to the public.
I shouldn’t compare this slick move to money laundering, but I can’t help it that the principles apply so easily.
So … this criminal justice system of ours — the one that has been put on trial because of the Murdaugh legacy — just had its first big test and it failed.
While Lee set bond at an amount that is allegedly too high for Murdaugh to pay, making what I’m about to say moot for now, she was also making it possible for him to go home yesterday (were he able to pay that bond).
Meanwhile, the public was led to believe that Newman’s ruling would’ve kept Murdaugh behind bars regardless of what Lee did Monday.
Why does this disconnect matter?
1. TRANSPARENCY. Transparency is absolutely key in building public trust. No one was allowed to record the hearing and no reason was given for this … meaning, this public hearing was hardly very public. Who did this protect? Judge Lee? Murdaugh? Murdaugh’s attorneys? The victims, who weren’t even allowed on as participants at first? Those who helped make the slick move happen?
2. THE MURDAUGH LEGACY. This ban on recording and the switcheroo are why the public finds it hard to trust the justice system as it relates to Murdaugh, who was part of law enforcement himself and with the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office up until recently.
3. THE VICTIMS. There are a lot of people who are worried about their safety should Murdaugh be released, according to Attorney General’s office prosecutor Creighton Waters, who said Monday that victims have reportedly been harassed for coming forward.
4. STOP TELLING US THIS IS NORMAL. Because it isn’t …
In April 2019, a lawyer emailed me to tell me I was wrong to take issue with a very strange bond hearing that had just been held in Beaufort County, S.C., for a 19-year-old boy accused of three felonies.
I wrote about that hearing here.
The lawyer told me there was nothing special about the treatment the boy received in court that day. And, in fact, this is how the system works.
(Click to Listen)
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The hearing seemed unusually orchestrated in that every word uttered felt like it was done so in deference to the boy’s shiny attorneys, one in particular.
This attorney, I believe, is the reason the boy was spared the common humiliations most associated with “being arrested.”
After the boy’s bond was set, the correctional officer whose job it was to handcuff him was waved off by the prosecution.
The boy was not brought to the detention center to be processed.
His fingerprints were obtained using a portable wooden device that was brought into the courtroom just for him.
His mugshot was taken on an iPhone in the hallway of the courthouse.
The only restrictions on the boy were that he had to surrender his passport and stay within the bounds of the five counties that make up the 14th Judicial Circuit — though that would later be expanded to suit his needs.
I’m not sure what I expected.
This was, after all, Paul Murdaugh I was talking about and, as everyone now knows, things always seem to work a little differently for his family.
The lawyer who emailed me after I wrote the column wanted me to believe that there’s one system of justice and that everyone has access to it.
Paul could afford to hire Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Like the Murdaughs, we are all entitled to the presumption of innocence and an attorney to represent us.
But most of us do not have the money to pay for the high-priced attorneys … the ones who have access to the inner halls of justice, the ones who can make it rain behind closed doors, the ones who themselves are lawmakers.
The criminal justice system is never going to be perfect, but we have to call out the broken parts.
Prior to Murdaugh’s bond being set, it seemed clear to those watching the virtual hearing that Harpootlian, Griffin and Murdaugh might have been regarding the bond as a foregone conclusion.
Waters, the prosecutor, even found it important to note Monday that in the first bond hearing for Murdaugh, the terms of his bond had somehow been posted online before the judge set them.
Even though things didn’t work out so well for Murdaugh and his attorneys in the end, it seemed like the path had been cleared for it to happen.
If all it takes to help make things bend to your favor is to pay the attorneys with access — and we all know that’s how it works — when does that cross the line into bribery?
It’s a question worth reflecting on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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