BEAUFORT, S.C. — Former lawyer Alex Murdaugh appeared in a South Carolina courtroom Thursday for the first time since he was convicted six months ago of murdering his wife and younger son as he faces the next phase of the state's sprawling case against him — a web of alleged financial crimes involving two co-conspirators.
Prosecutors said Murdaugh, 55, faced 101 total charges and an alleged loss of $8.8 million to those affected by the alleged crimes.
Murdaugh appeared in Beaufort County General Sessions Court. Alleged accomplices Cory Fleming, a former lawyer and college roommate, and Russell Laffitte, an ex-banking CEO, who prosecutors say aided him in schemes to defraud clients out of money from at least 2005 to 2021, also appeared in court Thursday.
Murdaugh’s attorneys eventually accepted a trial date of Nov. 27 after having argued for a delay. Fleming received a 20-year sentence to run concurrently with his federal sentence of 46 months. The decision around Laffitte’s court case was pushed to a later date.
Murdaugh walked in through a side door, handcuffed and in a bright orange jumpsuit to a courtroom that was almost full. His hair appeared to have grown back some after it was shaved when he was incarcerated.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, who presided over Murdaugh’s murder trial, also presided over this hearing, as the former attorney sat and stared directly ahead throughout the short appearance.
Ultimately, Murdaugh was escorted out the same way he came in. He was in the courtroom for fewer than 30 minutes.
Murdaugh was last in a courtroom in March, when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the fatal shootings of his wife, Margaret, 52, and son Paul, 22, at the family's hunting lodge estate in June 2021.
That trial drew national attention as prosecutors accused him of murdering his wife and son to gain pity and to distract from financial crimes threatening to topple his reputation in South Carolina's Lowcountry, where three generations of family patriarchs had wielded power as the top prosecutor for decades.
Newman allowed the jury to hear evidence of Murdaugh’s alleged financial misdeeds, a pivotal win for the prosecution.
But that fact also became an immediate element in Murdaugh's defense.
Dick Harpootlian, who represents the former attorney, emphasized in the courtroom Thursday that Murdaugh's very public murder case came to an end just six months ago. It was aired on national television, podcasted, blogged and discussed deeply on the internet — that was all cause for a change of venue, he said.
"To try this case in less than a year than the other case, where are you going to get a jury?" He asked. "Mars?”
Murdaugh's attorney also noted that they had requested a new murder trial because he alleged the court clerk had tampered with the jury. He accused the prosecution of "another effort at creating a national spectacle," and argued the financial case could not proceed until the issues of the murder case were handled.
Murdaugh's defense team accuses Rebecca Hill, the Colleton County clerk of court, of tampering with the jury by “advising them not to believe Murdaugh’s testimony and other evidence presented by the defense, pressuring them to reach a quick guilty verdict, and even misrepresenting critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favorable to the defense.”
The jury deliberated for less than three hours before it found Murdaugh guilty of two counts of murder and two counts of using a weapon during the commission of a violent crime following six weeks of testimony.
Hill told Court TV that the allegations were “untrue.”
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office is prosecuting the murder and financial crimes cases against Murdaugh, has asked the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to investigate the allegations of jury tampering.
Murdaugh took the stand in his own defense in the murder trial, and while he denied having killed his wife and son, he admitted to some financial misconduct.
He now must answer more than 100 charges in state and federal courts, from money laundering to tax evasion to bank fraud.
Prosecutors allege that one such plot involved him conspiring with Fleming to siphon off insurance settlement funds in the death of the Murdaughs' longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield. Satterfield died in 2018 after what had been described as a "trip and fall accident" at the family home.
Murdaugh is accused of directing Fleming to draft checks totaling almost $3.5 million to a bank account that he used for his own personal enrichment while Satterfield's estate received none of the money, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors directly referenced Satterfield's case Thursday during Fleming's sentencing hearing. The lead attorney, Creighton Waters, pointed at Satterfield's family members who sat in the front row.
“It was a shakedown," Waters said. "Plain and simple."
In August, Fleming was sentenced to almost four years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty, and he was also ordered to pay restitution and a fine. He pleaded guilty to state charges and appeared in court Thursday to face sentencing by Newman.
Fleming's defense attorney, Deborah Barbier, said her client had already admitted his guilt and was "not making excuses."
"He has stepped up the plate, he has fully admitted that he was wrong," she said.
Tony Satterfield, son of Murdaugh's housekeeper, gave a statement at Thursday's hearing along with other members of the family. He said he forgave Fleming, but that it was "up to the judge to decide."
Justin Bamberg, an attorney for other victims of Fleming and Murdaugh's alleged scheme, had harsher words for Fleming, who looked down and did not look back at the Satterfield family during the proceeding.
“This is a dagger in the heart of the clients who trusted their lawyers,” Bamberg said.
Bamberg asked the judge to sentence Fleming, who faced up to 195 years in prison, "firmly." Fleming ultimately received a 20-year sentence, which will run concurrently with his federal sentence. In total, he will serve about four years in a federal prison and 16 years in state prison.
Laffitte, the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank, was sentenced last month to almost six years in federal prison after he was found guilty of stealing almost $2 million from clients' legal settlements in connection with Murdaugh. Laffitte has maintained his innocence and said he would appeal.
Haylee Barber reported from Beaufort and Erik Ortiz from New York.