Prosecutors respond to Murdaugh motion requesting motive in murder case

South Carolina prosecutors say they oppose a request to narrow details about a possible motive they will argue when prosecuting a former Lowcountry attorney.
Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 12:29 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 8, 2022 at 6:21 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina prosecutors say they oppose a request to narrow details about a possible motive they will argue when prosecuting former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh for the killings of his wife and youngest son.

Murdaugh was indicated in the June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of Maggie Murdaugh, 52; and their youngest son, Paul, 22, at the family’s hunting property in rural Colleton County.

In a 23-page answer, the state said on Thursday the court should not only deny the defense request but instead grant the motion to admit details of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes, for which they say he faces 90 charges from 18 state grand jury indictments.

Murdaugh attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin filed a motion on Monday demanding a “bill of particulars,” an archaic legal term for specific details on the motive prosecutors will present to a jury to explain why they believe Murdaugh committed the two killings. Murdaugh’s team argued that information would “avoid unnecessarily extending the trial by weeks.” They based that suggestion on the fact that the details of the various financial crimes of which Murdaugh is charged encompass “millions of pages of documents.” But, they said, the murder indictment “provides no clarity whatsoever as to how these millions of pages are relevant to the murders” and said the amount of evidence “demands some guidance from the state as to relevance.”

But while acknowledging that the evidence of the alleged financial crimes is “very extensive,” the state countered in its motion that it was not the state’s fault that there is “so much of it out there that had to be gathered.”

“If anything, it is the defendant’s fault,” the document states.

Prosecutors then argue that for a jury to properly evaluate motive, its members will need to “understand the distinction between who Alex Murdaugh appeared to be to the outside world — a successful lawyer and scion of the most prominent family in the region — and who he was in the real life only he fully knew — an allegedly crooked lawyer and drug user who borrowed and stole wherever he could to stay afloat ad one step ahead of detection.”

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

Proof of what the defense calls “years of Alex Murdaugh’s unbroken series of misappropriations, lies, loans, debts, and thefts” is necessary, it says, to explain that to the jury.

“Only then can a jury understand the clouds of defendant’s past were gathering into a perfect storm that was going to expose the real Alex Murdaugh to the world — and which would mean facing real accountability for his life. On June 7, 2021. The day defendant murdered Maggie and Paul,” the prosecutors’ motion states.

Prosecutors: Murdaugh suggested motive in killings immediately at crime scene

The state claims Murdaugh himself placed the issue of motive “front and center” through his own actions.

“Demonstrating that fact, Murdaugh — within just over 30 seconds of beginning to speak to the first officer to arrive at the crime scene on June 7, 2021 — suggested to law enforcement the killer’s motive stemmed from the February 2019 boat wreck that resulted in the tragic death of Mallory Beach,” the document states. “In fact, Murdaugh expressed certainty and stated he knew ‘that’s what it is’ [the boat case] to the responding officer. Thus, based on his own statements, Murdaugh placed motive into issue from the outset of law enforcement’s investigation into the killings, and he tried to tie that motive to events that had occurred more than two years earlier.”

Prosecutors state that based on evidence uncovered since the killings, Murdaugh was the “only individual with a true motive to kill his wife and son.”

The evidence, they claim, will show he built up “substantial debts over a period of years, and to cover those debts, began engaging in illicit financial crimes involving the theft and misappropriation of money from his clients and his own law firm.”

The state said evidence will also show those financial crimes were about to come to light at the time of the killings, adding that on that same day, Murdaugh’s law firm, then known as Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzorth and Detrick, demanded he provide an explanation as to where “hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees owed to the firm but stolen by Murdaugh had gone.”

Murdaugh, the state says, “had neither the money nor a plausible legal explanation with which to respond to the demand.”

At the same time, a lawsuit filed by Beach’s family in the fatal boat wreck had produced a motion requiring that Murdaugh provide his personal financial records.

“If granted as expected, that motion would have resulted in the exposure of Murdaugh’s financial records, which would itself have led to his misdeeds becoming known to others,” court documents state. “Ultimately, the murders served as Murdaugh’s means to shift the focus away from himself and buy himself some additional time to try and prevent his financial crimes from being uncovered, which — if revealed — would have resulted in personal, legal and financial ruin for Murdaugh.”

The state alleges that “absolutely worked” until a staff member at PMPED came across a Sept. 2, 2022, check which started the process of “unraveling the whole thing.”

Prosecutors detail ‘four main schemes’ through which they claim Murdaugh ‘stole’

The motion, filed by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Young, Deputy Attorney General Don Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters and Assistant Attorney General Johnny James, provides four manners they argue Murdaugh was able to steal more than $8.7 million.

First, they allege, he stole by “billing personal expenses to his clients and on firm credit cards or accounts.”

Second, prosecutors say he stole from his own family and the firm, claiming that in one instance, he took a six-figure loan repayment check “he knew had been erroneously issued to him, claiming he lost that check and getting another one issued, deposited the second check, and then waiting months to deposit the first — thus stealing the same money twice.”

The third scheme prosecutors detail in their motion alleges that he stole client funds by having PMPED client trust account disbursement checks made out to the Palmetto State Bank, and would then have its then-CEO, Russell Laffitte, “convert those checks” to Murdaugh’s personal use to pay off his debts.

Laffitte, who was charged with six financial crimes, was convicted on all six charges on Nov. 22. He has since requested a new trial, arguing that two jurors were improperly dismissed and replaced during deliberations.

The fourth scheme prosecutors claim Murdaugh used to steal involved a fake bank account he opened in 2015 under the name “Richard A. Murdaugh d/b/a Forge.”

Forge Consulting, LLC, was a legitimate company used as a consultant to match clients receiving large settlements with annuity companies, court documents state.

But when Murdaugh opened the account with the Forge name, “he could have client funds disbursed from the PMPED trust account on a check made out to Forge,” which they argue would not attract law firm staff or client attention.

Prosecutors allege that Murdaugh borrowed billions “from wherever or whoever he could,” bouncing between “massive interest payments and inadequate principal payments” and consistently carried “staggering six-figure balances on multiple debts.” That, they allege, was still not enough to stop “the incessant financial roller coaster on which defendant put himself,” adding that things only got worse on the night of the boat crash.

Boat crash lawsuit sparked uptick in monetary thefts, prosecutors claim

The Beach family’s lawsuit placed Paul Murdaugh, the alleged driver of the boat, facing “very serious criminal liability and the possibility of 25 years or more in prison,” court documents state.

But Alex Murdaugh and his family were also facing “significant civil liability” for the events leading to Beach’s death because of the lawsuit targeting Murdaugh and his older son, Buster, the response states.

“The [Beach family’s] attorney in the civil boat case made it clear they were seeking nothing less than an aggressive monetary recovery from [Murdaugh’s] personal assets,” court documents state. “Tellingly, the aftermath of the boat case also saw a large uptick in the amount of funds [Murdaugh] started to allegedly steal, including over $3 million from the Satterfield recovery, and about $4.5 million total from clients during January 2019 until April 2021 alone. The boat case also marked a large uptick in the checks [Murdaugh] had been writing to various associates such as Curtis Eddie Smith. While some of this money was for narcotic pills, the pace for Eddie alone increased to over $1 million alone in 2021. The amounts of the individual checks increased as well.”

When Murdaugh’s attorneys told the Beach family’s attorneys that Murdaugh had no money to personally pay for any settlement, the Beach family attorneys filed the motion to compel Murdaugh to turn over his financial records, court documents state. The hearing on that motion, originally scheduled for May of 2021, was continued and rescheduled to June 10, 2021. three days after the murders happened, prosecutors say.

Those events and others, including questions about missing fees owed to the law firm, converged on the day of the killings, they allege.

‘Immediately everything changed’ after killings, state claims

After the killings in Colleton County, prosecutors say people “immediately treated [Murdaugh] as the victim of an unspeakable tragedy.”

“Everyone backed off their inquiries and rallied around him. The PMPED partners and staff were no longer seeking immediate answers about the bypassed fees and stopped making inquiries,” court documents state. “The hearing on the motion to compel was canceled and a personal recovery against [Murdaugh] in the civil case was in jeopardy as a practical matter. The day of reckoning vanished.”

Prosecutors claim that in the aftermath of the two murders, Murdaugh “set about covering his tracks” by borrowing money to cover enough of the bypassed fees at the law firm and continued to write checks to Smith “at an accelerated rate.”

But they say the discovery of a check at the law firm for fees that had been written to Murdaugh directly kept the plan from working. The check was taken to the law firm’s finance office, “where it triggered staff to take a closer look at one of the Forge matters that had taken a back seat in the wake of the murders.” After additional research, prosecutors say the law firm confronted Murdaugh with their findings on Sept. 3, 2021, and that he resigned.

People would initially rally to Murdaugh’s aid again days later when Murdaugh said he was the victim of a shooting during the Labor Day weekend.

“This case is unique in South Carolina history for many reasons,” the state argues in petitioning to allow all of the financial crime evidence to be admitted. “One of those is that exposing what happened to Maggie and Paul necessarily has it roots in an corruption that began years ago and festered until June 7 was the result. The evidence should be admitted so the jury can fairly assess why a man might murder his wife and son.”

The next motions hearing is set for Friday in Colleton County.