BEAUFORT, S.C. — Convicted killer Alex Murdaugh struck a plea deal Friday, days before the start of his trial in South Carolina's sprawling case against him in dozens of financial crimes.
Murdaugh, 55, appeared in Beaufort County Court before Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman and agreed to plead guilty to various counts, including in a case in which he was accused of siphoning off insurance settlement funds in the death of the Murdaughs' longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.
The former personal injury lawyer, shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, told the court: "I am happy to be pleading guilty to these charges for a number of reasons."
Chief prosecutor Creighton Waters of the state attorney general's office recommended a 27-year prison sentence, although Newman said he would make a final determination during a Nov. 28 sentencing in which he "fully intends" to accept Murdaugh's guilty plea after hearing from victims.
Waters gave an overview of the various cases, accusing Murdaugh of having an "insatiable need for money," while Murdaugh sat stone-faced in a near-empty courtroom — a far cry from the packed proceedings during his double murder trial in February.
Murdaugh told Newman that he "disagreed with some of the narrative" provided by Waters, but "not the essential elements of the facts of the crimes."
The state's case, which played a pivotal role in Murdaugh's murder trial, included 101 financial-related charges and an alleged loss of $8.8 million to those affected by the schemes he committed against his clients as well as his family's law firm.
Murdaugh is serving two consecutive life terms for the fatal shootings of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their younger son, Paul, 22, in 2021.
The deal between the state attorney general's office and Murdaugh's defense team means he will avoid the trial that was set to begin Nov. 27, in what would have again brought a spotlight onto the disbarred attorney.
Murdaugh's murder trial drew intense coverage, given his lineage as the scion of a powerful legal family in South Carolina's Lowcountry, and his actions in the wake of the shooting deaths of his wife and son at their rural estate.
The case, first classified as an unsolved double homicide, quickly unraveled into wider allegations of financial fraud, a hired hitman plot and drug addiction, and it revived inquiries into other curious deaths linked to the Murdaugh family.
Murdaugh has proclaimed his innocence in the fatal shootings of his wife and son since a grand jury indicted him in the murders last year. Prosecutors alleged he killed them to gain pity before he would be exposed for a slew of financial crimes.
He pleaded guilty in federal court in September to almost two dozen counts of financial fraud and money laundering. As part of a plea deal, Murdaugh must pay restitution to "each and every identifiable victim," according to the agreement with federal prosecutors, who accused him of stealing about $9 million from clients in a "pattern of criminal activity" going back more than a decade.
In addition, he may be subject to a polygraph test and could be called to "testify fully and truthfully before any grand juries and at any other trials or other proceedings," prosecutors said.
In return, his federal sentence must run at the same time as any sentence imposed in his state case.
Murdaugh was linked with two co-conspirators — 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. Both men were previously convicted or pleaded guilty to related crimes.
In the case of Satterfield, who died in 2018 after what had been described as a "trip and fall accident" at the Murdaugh's home, prosecutors say Murdaugh directed Fleming to draft checks totaling almost $3.5 million to a bank account that he used for his own personal enrichment while Satterfield's two adult sons received none of the money.
"We have no doubt that Alex Murdaugh will never get a fresh breath of air outside of prison," Eric Bland, a lawyer for the Satterfields, said in a statement. "Irrespective of the murder convictions, this monster deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars."
Murdaugh's attorneys said after the hearing that their client has never denied committing financial crimes, which he generally admitted to when he took the stand at his murder trial.
"He feels very comfortable doing prison time for crimes he committed," Jim Griffin, one of Murdaugh's lawyers, told reporters. "He does not feel comfortable doing prison time for the murders of his wife and son, which he did not do."
Murdaugh is attempting to win a new trial for the murder charges after his lawyers accused the clerk of court of jury tampering. She has denied the allegations. Newman, who oversaw that trial as well, agreed to step down in any further proceedings related to the case, as he could potentially be called as a witness, according to a court order Thursday.
Juliette Arcodia reported from Beaufort, and Erik Ortiz from New York.