Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes can be given as evidence in murder trial, judge rules

Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes can be given as evidence in murder trial, judge rules

A South Carolina judge has ruled that Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes can be presented as evidence in his trial for the murders of his wife and son.

In a major blow to the disgraced legal scion’s defence, Judge Newman ruled on Monday that the jury should be allowed to hear about Mr Murdaugh’s alleged multi-million-dollar fraud schemes as they decide his fate on murder charges.

The judge agreed with the prosecution that the vast financial fraud scheme – in which he allegedly stole over $8m from law firm clients – was relevant to their argument of establishing a motive in the case.

“I find that the jury is entitled to consider whether the apparent desperation of Mr Murdaugh because of his dire financial situation, the threat of being exposed for committing the crimes for which he was later charged, resulted in the commission of the alleged crimes,” Judge Newman said.

While the state does not need to prove motive in the case, the charges do require proof of malice.

The alleged financial crimes – showing Mr Murdaugh was “under immense pressure after being confronted about missing fees”, his “dire financial straits and looming exposure of his criminal activities” – provide “context” for the murders, the judge said.

Over the course of the last week, the judge has heard hours of testimony without the jury present about the legal dynasty heir’s alleged financial crimes as he weighed what evidence could be admitted in court.

Prosecutors argued that details of Mr Murdaugh’s financial crimes are key to proving the motive in the murders of Maggie and Paul, claiming that he killed his wife and son to hide the string of other crimes and scandals which were catching up with him.

Meanwhile, the defence asked the judge to throw the evidence out of the murder trial, arguing it is irrelevant and separate to the case.

At the time of the murders, Mr Murdaugh’s law firm PMPED was closing in on his alleged multi-million-dollar fraud scheme with a colleague confronting him about it on the morning of the killings.

His finances were also coming under intense scrutiny in a lawsuit brought by the family of Mallory Beach – a 19-year-old woman who died in a 2019 crash in the Murdaugh family boat.

Paul was allegedly drunk driving the boat at the time and crashed it, throwing Beach overboard. Her body washed ashore a week later. Paul was charged with multiple felonies over the boat wreck and was facing 25 years in prison at the time of his murder.

A hearing for the boat crash lawsuit was also scheduled for the week of the murders. It was postponed following Maggie and Paul’s murders.

Following the murders, Mr Murdaugh was charged with a slew of around 100 charges from multiple indictments for embezzling millions of dollars from clients at his law firm PMPED.

Alex Murdaugh talks with his attorney Jim Griffin in his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse (AP)
Alex Murdaugh talks with his attorney Jim Griffin in his double murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse (AP)

In total, he is accused of stealing almost $8.5m from clients in fraud schemes dating back around a decade to 2011.

The attorney, who has since been disbarred, represented the clients in wrongful death lawsuits before allegedly pocketing the settlement money for himself.

During the shadow trial, the judge heard from eight people affected by Mr Murdaugh’s alleged financial fraud including the CFO at his former law firm PMPED, his best friend of decades and the son of his former housekeeper.

PMPED CFO Jeanne Seckinger testified that she had confronted Mr Murdaugh over missing payments on the day of Maggie and Paul’s murders.

She told the court that by 7 June 2021 the law firm partners had noticed $792,000 worth of legal fees missing from the case he worked with Mr Wilson.

When she approached Mr Murdaugh to ask him about it that morning she said he gave her a “dirty look” – something that she said she had “ever received from him before”.

Hours later, Maggie and Paul were shot dead.

Over the coming months, the law firm partners uncovered the extent of the scam – reaching a head with the partners confronting Mr Murdaugh and forcing him to resign on 3 September 2021.

During emotional testimony, Mr Murdaugh’s former best friend of 40 years Chris Wilson broke down in tears as he described how he learned that day that his friend was stealing money from clients – and $192,000 from himself.

Mr Wilson choked up with emotion as he said the betrayal “knocked me down” and revealed that “I don’t know how to think any more” about the man he had known and “loved” for most of his life.

Mr Wilson testified that the two attorneys worked on a case together where Mr Murdaugh made a $792,000 cut.

At Mr Murdaugh’s request, Mr Wilson made the check payable directly to him instead of PMPED. Then, in July 2021 – one month on from the murders – Mr Wilson said that his friend got in touch saying he had been unable to structure the fees as planned and needed to pay the money back and have it paid directly to PMPED.

Mr Murdaugh only had $600,000 to pay it back, with Mr Wilson saying that he covered the additional $192,000, on the basis that Mr Murdaugh would pay him back.

On 3 September 2021 – three months on from the murders – Mr Wilson said he finally learned his friend had been scamming him and many other people. He confronted him the next day.

Choking back tears, Mr Wilson revealed that his longtime friend broke down and confessed to stealing the money to fund a secret 20-year opioid addiction.

“He broke down crying,” he said. “I was so mad. I had loved the guy for so long, and I probably still loved him a little bit, but I was so mad, and I don’t remember how it ended. How did I not know these things or see these things?”

Hours later, Mr Murdaugh was shot in the head in what turned out to be a botched hitman plot.

Mr Murdaugh initially claimed he was shot in a drive-by shooting while changing a tyre on his car.

But his story quickly unravelled and he confessed to orchestrating the plot with his alleged co-conspirator, drug dealer, former client and cousin Curtis “Eddie” Smith so that his surviving son Buster could get a $10m life insurance windfall.

One of the families allegedly swindled by Mr Murdaugh also testified in the shadow trial.

Tony Satterfield is the son of Gloria Satterfield, who worked as the Murdaugh family’s housekeeper and nanny for more than 20 years, before she died in a mysterious trip and fall at the family home in 2018.

Mr Satterfield told the court how Mr Murdaugh allegedly swindled almost $4m in a wrongful death lawsuit payout from the family in the aftermath of her death.

The court was shown evidence of two separate settlements in the wrongful death suit – one for $505,000 and one for $3.8m. Mr Satterfield testified that Mr Murdaugh did not tell him about the settlements and that he did not receive “one cent” of the money.

In June 2021 – the same month that Maggie and Paul were shot dead – there were reports in the media about a settlement and Mr Satterfield said he chased Mr Murdaugh about the progress of the case.

Unbeknown to him, Mr Murdaugh had already allegedly received payouts and pocketed them for himself.

Now, Mr Murdaugh is charged with almost 30 criminal charges over the Satterfield settlement.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters also raised questions about the nature of her death.

“Was she able to say how she fell?” he asked.

“No she was not,” Mr Satterfied replied.

At the time, Satterfield’s death was regarded as an accidental fall – however her death certificate cited her manner of death as “natural”.

In September 2021, SLED announced that it was reopening an investigation into her death and, in early 2022, officials announced plans to exhume her body. The investigation is still ongoing and her body is yet to be exhumed.

Mr Murdaugh is facing life in prison for the murders of Maggie and Paul, who were shot dead at the dog kennels at the family’s estate on 7 June 2021.

Maggie was shot five times with an AR-15-style rifle and Paul was shot twice with a shotgun.

Mr Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to the murders of his wife and son and insists the killer is still at large.

Their deaths brought to light a sprawling saga surrounding Mr Murdaugh – the son of a once-powerful legal dynasty who was in the grips of a 20-year opioid addiction and accused of stealing millions of dollars.

As well as the death of Satterfield and Beach, the shootings of Paul and Maggie also raised questions about the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, who was found dead in the middle of the road in Hampton County, South Carolina.

The openly gay teenager, 19, had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and his death was officially ruled a hit-and-run. But the victim’s family have long doubted this version of events, with the Murdaugh name cropping up in several police tips and community rumours.

An investigation was also reopened into his death just days after Maggie and Paul’s murders on 22 June 2021.