Murdaugh accepts plea agreement ahead of financial crimes trial

Judge sets sentencing date for Nov. 28
Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 9:58 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2023 at 3:13 PM EST
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BEAUFORT, S.C. (WCSC) - Former Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh agreed to enter guilty pleas to several financial crimes as part of a plea agreement, prosecutors said Friday.

The news came after an extended recess that lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours Friday.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters said Murdaugh had signed the agreement, which covers multiple charges across multiple indictments from multiple counties. He said in putting together the agreement, they ensured there was “at least one and sometimes more than one representative charge for each victim that was victimized by Mr. Murdaugh in the course of his legal practice.”

After listing the multiple charges to which Murdaugh agreed to plead guilty, Waters said Murdaugh faces a total sentence of “27 years at 85%”, which indicates he may be eligible for parole after completing 85% of the 27-year sentence, or nearly 23 years in prison.

Waters requested that sentencing be delayed as prosecutors continue to notify the various victims. The agreement also contains a provision for restitution.

“Mr. Murdaugh admits that he owes restitution, but the exact amounts and that order will be deferred for when we have the sentencing proceeding,” Waters said.

Judge Clifton Newman questioned Murdaugh under oath about his willingness to accept the plea agreement.

“Where there’s a negotiated sentence, either I will accept the plea, guilty plea, and give you the exact sentence that you, your lawyer and the prosecutor have negotiated or I will not acept your guilty plea,” Newman said. “Do you understand that?”

“Yes, sir,” Murdaugh said.

“Would you like for me to accept the guilty plea and pose the negotiated sentence?” Newman asked.

“Yes, sir, I would,” Murdaugh said.

Newman accepted Murdaugh’s guilty plea contingent on the victims’ Bill of Rights being satisfied. He set a sentencing hearing for Nov. 28 at 10 a.m.

After that hearing, Harpootlian and Griffin spoke with reporters about the plea agreement and what still lies ahead.

“Both Jim and I believe today was a big step in resolving Alex Murdaugh’s issues,” Harpootlian said. “Since he admitted his financial crimes in September of 2021 ... he’d been wanting to plead guilty to these or resolve them since then.”

Griffin said the only impediment to the guilty plea was making sure he would have plea terms that would give him an opportunity to get out of prison.

“And today we got those terms and, you know, he’s prepared to serve a long time,” Griffin said. “As he said to me as we were going into the courtroom, he feels very comfortable doing prison time for crimes that he did. And he knew that he was going to prison. He does not, does not, feel comfortable doing prison time for the murders of his wife and son for which he did not do and we still are singularly focused on exonerating him for those convictions.”

Harpootlian said Murdaugh’s son, Buster, has been subjected to “tremendous scrutiny and online bullying and harassment by everyone” and said Murdaugh hopes his guilty plea will help with that.

“He’s very concerned about his son, Buster,” Harpootlian said.

Griffin said Murdaugh had long wanted closure for his victims.

“Believe it or not, you know, he cares for these victims, and he felt badly about it, and he was, you know, people want to diminish this, but he was in the throes of an opioid addiction,” Griffin said. “And, you know, it had taken over his life and, and so you know, he’s opioid-free, he’s drug-free, and he feels awful about his conduct and he’s going to spend the next 22 years in prison, apologizing.”

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

The hearing went into recess almost immediately after it began Friday morning in Beaufort County. Moments after it began, Newman called for a recess saying there were “some matters” that the court would need to take up with attorneys.

“It will take some time. I don’t know exactly how long, so we’re going to immediately recess and come back on the record at that time,” he said.

The hearing began at 10 a.m. and was expected to address “juror issues” in the upcoming trial, according to the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office. The office did not rule out the possibility that other issues might be discussed.

Murdaugh’s attorneys filed a motion earlier this week requesting the trial either be moved to another venue or postponed for at least a year saying the publicity from the murder trial would make it difficult to find a fair and impartial jury.

The submitted motion stated 167 jury questionnaires were returned and 147 of those admitted to having prior knowledge of Murdaugh’s crimes.

Murdaugh pleaded guilty to similar federal financial charges on Sept. 21.

The hearing comes one day after the South Carolina State Supreme Court released an order denying a defense motion that would have blocked Newman, the circuit court judge who was appointed to preside over all of Murdaugh’s hearings, from presiding over future hearings related to murder charges against Murdaugh.

Murdaugh was convicted in March of the June 2021 killings of his wife, Maggie, and their son, Paul, at the family’s hunting property in rural Colleton County.

In that motion, Murdaugh defense attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin argued Newman should be barred from presiding over any future cases because he “has personal knowledge about the clerk of court’s conduct” which they argue will be disputed at a hearing about whether Murdaugh should have a new trial. Documents also allege Newman made statements after the judge returned guilty verdicts that violated the Code of Judicial Conduct.

But the state’s high court denied the motion to bar Newman from presiding over future cases, stating he has already requested a new judge be assigned.