Embattled legal scion Richard “Alex” Murdaugh pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he murdered his wife and son.
Murdaugh was indicted July 14 on two counts of murder and two weapons possession charges. The counts are all connected to the deaths of wife Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and son Paul Murdaugh, 22, on Murdaugh family property in Colleton County on June 7, 2021.
“What say you, Richard Alex Murdaugh, are you guilty or not guilty of the felonies wherein your stand indicted?” Judge Clifton Newman asked the defendant.
“Not guilty,” Murdaugh replied.
“How shall you be tried?” Judge Newman asked.
“By God and my country,” Murdaugh said. That is a somewhat antiquated way of saying that Murdaugh wished to be tried by a jury, rather than by a judge.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters told the judge that the 13-month investigation was “long and arduous” and that “every possibility was considered before the evidence . . . all came back to one person, and that is Alex Murdaugh.”
Speaking for the defense, attorney Dick Harpootlian scoffed at suggestions that the evidence was anything close to ironclad.
“We’d like to go ahead and get this matter before a Colleton County jury as quickly as possible,” Harpootlian said later in the proceeding while offering several reasons for a speedy trial request. “One . . . he believes he’s innocent — avers he’s innocent. And two, he believes that the killer or killers are still at large, and this would allow SLED to put this behind them and go look for the real killers.”
Harpootlian added that he wanted a trial within 90 to 120 days or “as quickly as possible.” Harpootlian, who is also a state senator, said he would waive his legislative obligations to move the case as quickly as possible.
Waters disputed whether the case could be tried that quickly but otherwise said the state agreed that the matter should be swiftly handled. Waters also said the evidence against Murdaugh was “substantial” and that the state was ready to move forward as expeditiously as possible.
No specifics were proffered as to what the state’s evidence might entail.
Significant portions of the proceeding turned toward courtroom secrecy.
Both sides discussed filing motions under seal, whether a confidentiality order was necessary, and even the extreme step of holding private hearings to keep details of the matter out of the press.
“The further discussion of the alleged facts of this case, in an open courtroom, we think continues to run the risk of polluting the jury pool,” Harpootlian said as he worried about his client’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
The attorneys also posited a highly bizarre and irregular process of filing and arguing pretrial motions in private. While some court documents are, indeed, filed under seal as a routine matter of practice, court documents are presumptively matters of public record.
“We can obviously discuss things in writing, submit them to your honor prior to the hearing and not have those matters necessarily put on the record, but that’s something down the line, so, your honor; we have an agreement as to confidently, we have an agreement as to filing matters under seal, and I think that takes care of that issue,” Harpootlian said.
“I believe we are in general agreement on those matters,” Waters said.
Both sides also discussed whether a gag order was appropriate; both sides agreed a “limited” gag order would be appropriate — especially as to “extrajudicial comments to the press,” Waters indicated.
Harpootlian agreed and said someone — likely not from the prosecutor’s office — is responsible for the “constant churning” of news about Murdaugh. Waters agreed; he said the case “needs to be tried in the courtroom.”
The discussion was strong on theory — a wish list based on policy concerns — and light on the law. Rarely — if ever — were statutes, rules, or constitutional provisions quoted or cited in support of the arguments.
The judge, therefore, was not impressed with the solutions being posited in a virtually unopposed matter.
Judge Newman said he disfavors gag orders and suggested the parties should proffer a suggested order for his review.
Harpootlian circled back to his concerns that the press would seek to learn the alleged facts of the case from motions filed with the clerk of court’s office.
Newman suggested that individual matters could be filed under seal but indicated that “private motion hearings” would not be tolerated.
“Public matters will be public,” the judge said.
Harpootlian consented that Murdaugh would not be offered bond in the present murder cases. He’s already subject to a $7 million bond in his myriad other legal matters.
Alex Murdaugh’s legal woes also include an allegedly botched civil lawsuit over the death of housekeeper Gloria Satterfield. Murdaugh is charged separately with obtaining property by false pretenses in a case connected to Satterfield’s death.
He was also previously charged in mid-September 2021 with filing a false police report of a felony, insurance fraud, and criminal conspiracy to commit insurance fraud in connection with an alleged plot to have a former client kill him by the side of the road. The former client, Curtis Edward Smith, has denied criminal involvement with the matter.
Months before the roadside incident, Murdaugh said he found his wife Maggie and son Paul shot dead on the family’s property. His attorneys have long said he was a person of interest in those two deaths; now they want the state held swiftly to its burden of proof.
Watch the proceeding below:
[images as noted]
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