The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office formally dropped two felony breach of trust charges against disgraced Hampton County attorney Alex Murdaugh last week for his alleged role in a scheme to steal $4.3 million from the family of the woman who helped raise his children.
The charges are being dismissed as part of what some have regarded as a shrewdly subversive plan to effectively reverse a judge’s previous order that denied Murdaugh bond.
Murdaugh continues to be held at the Richland County Detention Center in Columbia in lieu of a $7 million bond set by Judge Alison Lee on Dec. 13 for 48 charges related to Murdaugh’s alleged theft and laundering of $6.2 million in settlement funds and attorney fees.
The two charges dropped Dec. 20 in Beaufort County Courthouse, where they were originally filed, were for Obtaining Signature or Property Under False Pretenses (more than $10,000).
According to the Attorney General’s office, these charges were absorbed into one of the 12 indictments against Murdaugh that were handed down by the state Grand Jury over the past two months.
What Was The Point Of These Two Charges?
While out on a personal recognizance bond related to his arrest in a bizarre Labor Day shooting incident, Murdaugh was arrested for a second time on Oct. 14 after leaving a drug rehabilitation center in Orlando, Florida.
He was extradited to Columbia and served with two warrants (below) outlining his alleged crimes against the family of Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaughs’ longtime domestic worker who died as a result of a fall at the family’s Moselle hunting lodge.Richard-Alexander-Murdaugh_Warrants2-Redacted
This arrest came just one week after our news director Mandy Matney had called out investigators at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division for not filing charges against Murdaugh in the Satterfield case despite damning evidence that was released by Satterfield family attorney Eric Bland of the Bland Richter law firm in Columbia.
Questions were raised after the bond hearing in Murdaugh’s first arrest, which was held in Hampton County Magistrate Court — Murdaugh’s home courthouse — because the terms of the judge’s bond hearing had mysteriously posted on Hampton County Courthouse’s Public Index before the judge had even made her ruling.
A few weeks before Murdaugh’s second arrest, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty issued an order assigning Judge Clifton Newman to all cases related to Alex Murdaugh. This was done as a sign of judicial good faith to avoid accusations of favoritism — given the Murdaugh family’s deep and long-standing political and legal connections.
But Newman’s first ruling in the Satterfield case shocked longtime legal observers who had never before seen bail denied to a breach of trust suspect with no criminal history. It also seemed to rattle both Murdaugh and his powerful attorneys state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin.
DON’T MISS A STORY …
Newman, who had signed the warrants in Murdaugh’s arrest, declared that Murdaugh was a danger to the community and ordered him held without bond.
He reaffirmed the no-bond order on Nov. 10 after the results of Murdaugh’s psychiatric evaluation came back. That same day, Murdaugh’s attorneys turned to the state Supreme Court for help in freeing their client through a writ of habeas corpus. That petition was never heard by the court.
Just over a week later, the state Attorney General’s office announced four additional victims and 27 new charges against Murdaugh. On Dec. 9, they announced seven new victims and 21 new charges.
In the meantime, Chief Justice Beatty issued another order (below) on Dec. 3 — this one seemingly reassigning Murdaugh’s cases to the presiding judge over the state grand jury, the Honorable Alison Lee.
Though Newman would remain the “trial judge,” Beatty ordered that “the matter of setting of bail and any motions to adjust the amount or condition of bail for defendants indicted by the State Grand Jury of South Carolina shall be heard by the presiding judge of the state grand jury.”
In other words, when Newman didn’t rule in Murdaugh’s favor and wouldn’t change his mind on the ruling, the public was now being told that a different judge would be entering the equation.
FITSNews had asked several sources close to the judicial process and investigations whether Beatty’s order would now give Lee the authority to reverse Newman’s no-bond decision.
We were uniformly told that Newman’s ruling would stand and that even if Lee were to facilitate Murdaugh’s release, Murdaugh would remain incarcerated on the two charges in the Satterfield case.
It wasn’t until after the hearing, in which Lee — much to the surprise of Murdaugh’s attorneys and the public — set Murdaugh’s bail at a whopping $7 million with no option to pay 10 percent that FITSNews learned from the state Attorney General’s office that Murdaugh’s two original charges had been absorbed into the Satterfield indictment from Nov. 19 and that the arrest warrants would be dismissed.
This meant that Lee’s bond ruling was for the entirety of Murdaugh’s charges not related to the Labor Day shooting incident.
A lingering question remains and that is “why?”
Why were Murdaugh’s first two charges filed in Beaufort County Courthouse when it was knowable at the time that the state Grand Jury would likely be involved in Murdaugh’s case and more charges would be coming?
Why did Beatty issue an order about Newman in September knowing that in the normal course of business, the presiding judge of the state Grand Jury makes all decisions related to bail in state Grand Jury charges?
Why, when it’s the normal course of business for Lee to preside over state Grand Jury bail hearings, did Beatty offer a second order formally assigning her to the task?
The complications of Murdaugh’s cases and the depth of Murdaugh’s influence means that every move made by the state Supreme Court, the state Attorney General’s office and every member in law enforcement will be scrutinized — and sometimes unfairly picked at.
But the questions still have to be asked.
What Happens Next?
Even before the charges attached to Newman’s no-bond ruling were formally dismissed, Murdaugh was free to post the bail set by Lee. But there’s one problem: His attorneys say he’s broke.
Though a receiver was appointed to comb through Murdaugh’s finances in the 2019 wrongful death case that lists Murdaugh as a co-defendant, no public announcement has been made on Murdaugh’s actual assets.
His attorneys have indicated to Judge Lee that they will file a motion for her to reconsider her decision.
During the hearing, she indicated that she’d be willing to lower his bail to $6.2 million, the amount he is alleged to have stolen.
FITSNews will continue to follow the case and update readers.
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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