Crime & Courts

South Carolina Probate Scandal: Status Quo Still Hiding The Ball

“Why all the secrecy? What are they hiding?”

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The trial of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh began on January 26, 2023 in Walterboro, South Carolina and lasted for six long weeks. During that time, witness after witness was called to the stand to testify – sometimes twice – about complex topics. The transcripts taken by the court reporters were voluminous. In fact, there was more than one court reporter assigned to the trial. After a couple of (understandable) extensions, those transcripts are scheduled to be completed on August 17, 2023. Yet despite numerous requests for a transcript of two hearings held on October 12, 2022 and November 14, 2022 in Darlington County probate court in front of Marvin Lawson, attorneys cannot seem to get a copy of their transcripts.

The case in question? It was brought by Florence, S.C. native Craig Hanna – who is at the center of a still-unspooling scandal that threatens to envelop the Palmetto State’s entire probate court system.

Probate courts oversee the estates of people who have passed away. They are charged with ensuring all creditors get paid and that assets of the estates are divvied up properly among the appropriate beneficiaries.

How do they operate within South Carolina’s infamous “injustice” system?

About as fairly and impartially as the circuit courts which habitually turn violent criminals loose onto our streets.

Why do these transcripts matter?

Because at the second hearing, judge Lawson removed Bradley Hanna as the conservator and Craig Hanna as the guardian for their mother Georgia “Jo” Hanna. In their places, Lawson appointed the Darlington County Treasurer, Jeffrey Robinson, as her conservator and another elected politician, Cody Mitchell, as her guardian.

These moves sparked backlash after Columbia, S.C.-based attorney Tucker Player – who represents Craig Hanna – realized the judge had issued “an unconstitutional and illegal order” on April 18, 2023 related to the sale of some of Jo Hanna’s property, namely a stately brick home in Florence on a beautiful tree-lined street in a prestigious neighborhood (.pdf).

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According to Player, the sale of this home was effectuated “without providing any notice or opportunity to be heard” to the parties in this action. In fact, attached to Player’s motion was a letter (.jpg) from Charles Ipock – an attorney with the Haynesworth Sinkler Boyd law firm – requesting Lawson issue his order “without notice, as allowed under the South Carolina Probate Court.”

By way of response (.pdf), Lawson accused Player of “attempt(ing) to raise potential ethical allegations regarding prior actions of this court” – allegations which he “vehemently” denied. Nonetheless, Lawson acknowledged “the mere allegations themselves counsel that this court should vacate its prior order and recuse itself from further involvement.”

Which Lawson did …

Lawson’s new order accepted Robinson’s resignation and attempted to clarify the role of Mitchell. According to the judge – now very much on the hot seat – he made it “abundantly clear” in a prior order that Mitchell was only designed as Jo Hanna’s guardian “in the event that one is needed in the future.”

Wait, though … wouldn’t the sale of Jo Hanna’s home have necessitated the presence of her guardian to protect her interests?

Exactly.

See the circular logic at work? Shell games such as these are routinely used by powerful lawyer-legislators – and the judges they appoint.

At any rate, Lawson claimed that since Hanna was living at a facility which cares for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, “all her needs are being taken care of,” and a guardian “has yet to be needed or appointed.

“Therefore Mr. Mitchell has not even been appointed,” he added.

Hold up … “Mitchell has not even been appointed?”

Except he was appointed. By Lawson.

All of these shenanigans getting the transcript from the November hearing in which Robinson and Mitchell were appointed all the more critical.

But guess what? Like the files for his father’s estate which should have been in the office of late attorney Gary Crawford, no one can seem to produce the transcripts to either hearing.

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GETTING THE TRANSCRIPT …

Craig Hanna’s previous attorney, Michael Sautter, requested the transcripts on January 12, 2023. A request to which he received no reply or transcript. They were again requested by Player on August 4, 2023 with a 10-day timeframe for their production at which time he would file a formal request to compel their production with the Court.

(Click to View)

(Via: Provided)

Instead of receiving the transcripts, though, Player received something far more interesting … an email from retired S.C. circuit court judge J. Michael Baxley.

Here is what Baxley had to say …

Judge Lawson shared with me your letter to him and others dated August 4 concerning an apparent previous transcript request from the Darlington County Probate Court. Upon seeing the tone and assertions of your missive, I asked for the opportunity to respond, which he kindly granted.

Your demand of August 4 to his knowledge is the first Judge Lawson has heard of this request, the original request was not addressed to him. Your letter accurately states “the Probate Court is a court of record in South Carolina”; unfortunately, that’s about where the accuracy ends. Court Administration does not fund court reporters for the Probate Court; therefore, any hearing transcript being ordered is a matter handled between counsel and the independent court reporter. We trust you realize a transcript of every hearing is not automatically generated and placed “of record” in any probate file. Perhaps the reason previous counsel did not receive a transcript as apparently requested, assuming the letter was accurately mailed with sufficient postage attached, and then delivered by the post office (of which you letter contains no proof), was the original request makes no offer of payment nor request for estimated cost, terms of payment, nor method of payment. Those type arrangements are standard with any transcript request.

A copy of your August 4 letter was sent to “Court Administration.” That’s a large agency with multiple departments and dozens upon dozens of employees. If it would assist you, this office can provide you the name and number of the Probate Court representative within that agency, which is public information.

One final point. Your letter’s misplaced umbrage, based upon inaccurate foundation, is not in keeping with the longstanding efforts of the Chief Justice’s Commission on the Profession [see Rule 420(c)(7)]. You might wish to review the Commission’s minutes and give its efforts some credence in your communications with any Court.

Email from Mike Baxley to Tucker Player (August 14, 2023)

Though Baxley makes no claim to represent Lawson in any capacity, the email’s language certainly raises some questions.

First and foremost, it makes no effort to indicate if the transcripts will actually be provided as requested. It further disputes whether Hanna’s first lawyer actually sent the request – and suggests that if he did, perhaps it the documents were not provided because no offer of payment arrangements was included.

But there’s a bigger question: Why is a retired circuit court judge so invested in a transcript which should be readily available per South Carolina Code of Laws?

The answer may lie in the Darlington County register of deeds’ office …

Baxley was elected to the bench of the fourth judicial circuit by the S.C. General Assembly on February 8, 2000. Just one day prior, on February 7, 2000, paperwork was filed with the Darlington County register of deeds appointing him to serve as the power of attorney for Ruby Flaccoe. Ms. Flaccoe, the widow of Albert Flaccoe, died on November 29, 2000 at the age of 84. The power of attorney was never officially revoked via a filing in the system. Which means for all intents and purposes, Baxley was serving as a power of attorney for an individual while he was a sitting circuit court judge.

Why does this matter? Because it’s a huge no-no…

(Click to View)

(Via: Provided)

According to Canon 3 of the Palmetto State’s judicial code of conduct, “a judge shall not serve as executor, administrator or other personal representative, trustee, guardian, conservator, attorney in fact or other fiduciary.”

Further, a judge should not be a signatory on a joint account with a guardian, conservator, attorney in fact, or personal representative, or otherwise exercise influence or control over the investment or use of such funds and property as are within the jurisdiction of the court. A judge may, however, serve in one of these capacities for the estate, trust or person of a member of the judge’s family – but only if such service will not interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties.”

(Yes… we checked Mrs. Flaccoe’s obituary and no, Baxley isn’t listed as a relative.)

Perhaps the mystery of Baxley’s interest in the case lies in his business relationship with Florence-based attorney Gary Crawford – who died by suicide on March 9, 2023. In addition to Crawford’s legal practice, he was also the registered agent of a company called Kitco which specialized in corporate record books.

After repeated attempts to obtain a copy of his father’s file from Crawford’s office following his death, Craig Hanna was told via an affidavit from Rebecca Crawford the files relating to his father’s estate had been destroyed as the files were “closed out many years ago.” 

(Click to View)

(Via: S.C. Secretary of State’s Office)

As Baxley proceeded through South Carolina’s notoriously well-lubricated “judicial merit” selection process, he completed a questionnaire (.pdf) – something all potential circuit court judges must do as part of the “screening” process. The questionnaire is intended to provide the selection committee with information related to many things regarding the individual seeking the judgeship – including potential conflicts of interest.

In his questionnaire, Baxley disclosed an interesting fact: He was a minority, nonparticipating shareholder in Kitco along with four other attorneys. His non-participating role was chosen to avoid any potential conflict which could arise if he presided over a case in which counsel could have a connection to that business.

Once again, Canon 3 of the South Carolina Judicial Code of Conduct also states, “a judge shall not engage in financial and business dealings that: (a) may reasonably be perceived to exploit the judge’s judicial position, or (b) involve the judge in frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with those lawyers or other persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.”

Incidentally, the company went into forfeiture on September 14, 2010, shortly after Baxley was elected to his role as circuit court judge.

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WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THE HANNA FAMILY?

Like the repeated request for his father’s files from Gary Crawford’s office following his death by suicide, Craig Hanna and his attorney have continued to encounter stalling tactics in their quest to obtain the transcripts from the court hearings last fall. Instead of simply providing the documents by the deadline Hanna’s attorney suggested, he received no response from the court – and an indignant response from a retired circuit court judge who does not appear to have any ties to the case.

Where is the transcript?

Why can’t the court simply pull the record (or recording) and provide it?

Why all the secrecy?

What are they hiding?

Again, while it appears six weeks worth of trial transcripts from Alex Murdaugh’s double homicide trial will be provided to his attorneys this week to aid in their preparation of an appeal, Craig Hanna can’t seem to get transcripts from two hearings held in probate court last fall.

And while Hanna and his lawyer are hoping the transcripts (or recordings) of the hearing weren’t destroyed like their father’s probate court files were, nothing surprises them anymore.

In the meantime, Jo Hanna’s probate case has been transferred, once again, to Horry County. No hearing has been scheduled. In the meantime, there is still no conservator or guardian for Hanna. It is unknown what will happen if any medical decisions need to be made on her behalf nor is it known who is paying her bills — including those for her living arrangements and her health insurance.

Player’s response to the retired judge is included below in its entirety to ensure full transparency and because perhaps he said it best, “Your (Baxley’s) communication appears to indicate that you believe I (Player) violated a rule of professional conduct. Please be aware of Rule 8 of our Rules of Professional Conduct which requires you to report any ethical violations you are aware of. It is not discretionary.”

As we continue digging into those allegations – and other issues we are finding within the South Carolina probate court system – I would remind everyone reading this article that FITSNews has an open microphone policy which encourages any individuals named in our reports to address our audience directly.

Stay tuned for much, much more on this saga …

“Do you represent Mr. Lawson? Is that a response to my request for a transcript? Is one going to be produced? The only thing your email communicates is the same umbrage towards me as you claim I used in my letter. I can point out your use of sarcasm, condescension, and patronizing tone if you like. What I would like for you to do is point out a single (1) allegation of wrongdoing, (2) adjective used in a sentence or (3) adverb used in any sentence anywhere in my letter. Typically, adjectives and adverbs are the tools used to invoke umbrage, annoyance or hyperbole. I didn’t use any in my correspondence.

Let’s examine my letter for purposes of clarity. I have attached a color coded PDF of the letter, entitled “Mask Up for Mike,” for you to read along. The first part is in GREEN and contains the date, address, and Regards line. I’m not sure any of this GREEN portion contains “umbrage”, but I’ll let you explain. The next part is in RED and is the opening salutation “To Whom It May Concern.” Pretty sure there is no umbrage here either. Now to the sentences, which I numbered in BLUE. Sentence 1 states that Michael Sautter requested transcripts for two hearings. I have no evidence to dispute this and I provided the actual letter that requested the transcripts. I see no umbrage here, but it may be hiding behind a date or something. Let’s move onto Sentence #2. That’s where I accurately state that I am providing the actual letter from Mr. Sautter. Let’s look at sentence #3. No reply was given and no transcript was received. Again, these are facts I obtained from Michael Sautter and are absolutely accurate. Sentence 5 is merely a request to provide the transcript. Perhaps you interpret my urgency (“as soon as possible”) as umbrage. I don’t know how you would interpret it that way, but it certainly was not intended to convey umbrage. Sentence 6 is where I accurately (according to you) state that the Probate Court is a court of record. I also refer to the language of the statute, which is directly quoted in Number 8. Still, I make no accusation, allegation of wrongdoing, or invoke the dreaded umbrage that got you so upset. Sentence 9 is merely a statement of my intentions. I called Court Administration before I sent that letter and they told me they had no power to regulate or require the production of transcripts in Probate Court. While Court Administration has no power, that does not mean the Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals, and/or the Supreme Court have no power. Hence, the only remedy left is a writ of mandamus. If a lawyer demanding a transcript from a court of record, while stating his intention of using a lawful method of compelling compliance with the law, is improper under the Chief Justice’s Commission on the Profession [see Rule 420(c)(7)], then perhaps that rule is not a very good rule. I think the better interpretation is that it doesn’t say that.

So, that covers the letter. There is no umbrage, there is no disrespect, there is nothing that comes within a frog’s hair of impropriety. More importantly, there is nothing inaccurate in my correspondence. You claim the only thing that is accurate is my assertion that probate court is a court of record. I challenge you to point out another. You certainly didn’t in the email above. If you are aware of some rule or precedent that I should not copy court administration, please provide it. If you have some law or other argument as to why a writ of mandamus is inappropriate, please provide it immediately. Our position is that without a record of the hearing, the Orders resulting from the hearing is void.

I have no idea why you chose to send this email. There appears to be no real purpose other than to convey some unspoken threat from a former judge. You and Mr. Lawson will learn that I do not react well to such tactics.

Your communication appears to indicate that you believe I violated a rule of professional conduct. Please be aware of Rule 8 of our Rules of Professional Conduct which requires you to report any ethical violations you are aware of. It is not discretionary. If it would assist you, I can provide you the number of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which is public information.”

Response to J. Michael Baxley from Tucker S. Player (August 14, 2023)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews' incomparable research director. She's also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she's married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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