It took awhile, but the gathering once known across the state of South Carolina as the ‘Murdaughs’ Playground’ finally heard one of its attendees call out the infamous legal dynasty.
That’s quite a departure from last year‘s S.C. Trial Lawyers Association (a.k.a. S.C. Association of Justice) convention – when convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, was in the midst of a major charm offensive amongst attendees.
It’s an even bigger departure from 2021, when Murdaugh – a past president of this group – attended the event himself.
Things went south for Murdaugh very quickly thereafter, though. A month after the 2021 convention, Murdaugh tried to stage his own murder on a Hampton County roadside with the assistance of his alleged drug dealer/ check casher, Curtis “Eddie” Smith. This roadside shooting – and the subsequent unraveling of Murdaugh’s narrative about what transpired on the side of the Old Salkehatchie Road on that fateful Labor Day weekend – was a pivotal moment in the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga.
In October of 2021, Murdaugh was arrested on charges tied to the shooting. That December, he was charged in the alleged theft of millions of dollars from former clients, law partners and family members. Last July, Murdaugh was charged with murder. And on March 2 of this year, he was convicted of killing his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, on June 7, 2021 at Moselle – the family’s hunting property.
As we noted in the latest edition of our Week In Review, the collapse of the ‘House of Murdaugh’ continues to this day – a murderous, made-for-Hollywood implosion set against the Spanish moss-draped woods and waters of the picturesque Palmetto Lowcountry.
A.k.a. ‘Murdaugh Country.’
As I noted last year, the trial lawyers’ conference – held annually on Hilton Head Island – has long been regarded as the epicenter of influence peddling within the Palmetto State’s notoriously corrupt system of “justice.”
On the first evening of this retreat each year, the former law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED) would host an exclusive, invitation-only “judge’s dinner” – spending thousands of dollars to wine and dine the very people they have historically relied upon for favorable rulings.
“Was always such a smelly tradition,” one source told me for a story I filed several years ago. “The judges loved it, though. The best wine and the best food. It was a big deal.”
Even after Alex Murdaugh’s collapse, his family and firm’s influence still lingered over the organization – which bills its members as “advocates for fairness under the law.”
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Prior to this month, the trial lawyers were led by Bert “Skip” Utsey – a former PMPED attorney. Also, as of last year, a framed picture of Alex Murdaugh still hung on the “wall of presidents” in the conference room of SCAJ’s downtown Columbia, S.C. headquarters, commemorating his leadership of the group from 2015-2016.
While this legacy – and the accommodative systems which enabled it – have been roundly condemned by this news outlet and countless others, the silence emanating from inside the proverbial belly of the beast has been nothing short of deafening.
Until this past weekend …
On the morning of Saturday, August 5, 2023 – as the latest annual trial lawyers’ convention wound down – attorney O. Fayrell Furr Jr. of the Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Furr & Hinshaw firm was honored by the organization with its so-called “Champion of Justice” award.
During his acceptance speech, Furr told attendees he was “embarrassed” Murdaugh was a past president of the association – adding that every trial lawyers in attendance should be “embarrassed, too.” He further exhorted his colleagues to work together to “overcome the shadow (Murdaugh) cast over our profession by stealing from his clients and partners” and violating the “trust of people who depended on him.”
Finally, somebody said something …
Following his speech, “lawyers lined up to thank him,” a source who attended the gathering recalled.
(Click to view)
“Fayrell Furr said what needed to be said,” another told me. “He was the first person I’ve heard address it. And he just pulled the curtain straight back and confronted it.”
Good for Furr. Better later than never, I suppose. And while it seems to the rest of us that publicly rebuking a thief and murderer is hardly a profile in courage, context matters.
Unfortunately, much more work is necessary if this “justice” association hopes to come even remotely close to fulfilling its stated mission of advocating for “those who are harmed by the actions of others no matter how powerful, wealthy or well-connected” they are.
Failure to adhere to this maxim has sent faith in South Carolina’s “independent” judicial institutions plummeting to an all-time low. Rather than protecting the vulnerable, organizations like this one have enabled and empowered a corrupt system in which violent criminals are coddled via sweetheart plea deals, anemic sentences, ridiculous bonds and not-so-mandatory minimums.
This deadly, corrupt and inherently unfair system has been driven for decades by powerful lawyer-legislators – and by powerful institutions like the trial lawyers and their legislative allies. Certainly, there are exceptions – like state representative Justin Bamberg, a lawyer-legislator who has consistently stood up for victims (including Murdaugh victims).
But those exceptions are far too few … and way too far between.
A big part of the problem? A lot of these powerful attorneys live in a self-sustaining echo chamber – one in which they are constantly told how good they are, how smart they are, how important they are and how virtuous they are. But the real problem? A broken system that enables them to habitually violate the principles they purport to uphold.
Until that system is fixed, all the truth-telling in the world won’t outweigh naked self-interest …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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