Suspended South Carolina attorney Richard “Alex” Murdaugh appeared in court Thursday afternoon for the first time to face charges connected to what authorities say was an admitted plot to end his own life by asking a former client to kill him. By ending his own life, Murdaugh hoped his son would obtain the proceeds of a $10 million life insurance policy.
During the hearing, Murdaugh’s attorneys characterized their client as a suffering opioid addict who was pushed “over the edge” by the murders of his wife and another son over the summer. And those attorneys said Murdaugh was struggling financially — a far cry from the highly publicized images of Murdaugh and his family attending black-tie events at expensive properties.
At the start of the 4:00 p.m. hearing, Magistrate Judge Tonja P. Alexander — the same judge who swore out warrants for Murdaugh’s arrest — informed Murdaugh of his rights and responsibilities as a criminal defendant. Among them were his right to counsel and what would happen to if he failed to appear to future proceedings as scheduled. But the main purpose of the hearing was to determine the precise parameters of Murdaugh’s pretrial release from custody.
Prosecutors with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office asked for Murdaugh to surrender his passport as a condition of bond. They also asked Murdaugh to waive extradition back to South Carolina should Murdaugh leave South Carolina. That request was based on Murdaugh’s assertion that he was planning to check into a drug rehabilitation center out of state. Prosecutors wanted to make sure he didn’t use his out-of-state rehab stay as an excuse to fight off judicial requests to return to the Palmetto State.
Prosecutors further sought a $100,00 surety and GPS monitoring for the defendant.
“He has no prior record,” one prosecutor told Judge Alexander. “However, while the charges here under the law are not violent, the underlying facts are violent. They indicated, at least allegedly, an intent to harm oneself. And that makes that person not only a danger to themselves, but that enhances the danger to the community in that regard. Indeed, they also involve conspiracy, and that means working with others for criminal activity, so I think that enhances the danger to the community.”
Prosecutors then said Murdaugh’s out-of-state treatment enhanced his risk of flight.
“Obviously, he has the resources to pay for these out of state inpatient rehabs,” the prosecutor said while noting that Murdaugh’s original treatment occurred within the state of South Carolina.
“I’ve seen these types of cases before,” the prosecutor continued. “Sometimes, those who have everything and who are suffering a possible fall from grace are actually more of a concern than a hardened criminal who has been in the situation before. For that reason, we would ask for that surety bond and for GPS.”
Defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian agreed to waive extradition and agreed to surrender Murdaugh’s passport, but they disagreed with everything else the state asked the judge to order. Harpootlian lauded Murdaugh’s connections to the community:
Alex Murdaugh spent his entire life in this county. No prior record. Actually involved in all aspects of this community. Up until this charge, had no blemish on his character whatsoever. He has, and we would concede . . . has had a significant opioid addition which has led him into some financial issues and, there’s no question, into this situation where he finds himself charged.
This crime involved his attempt to have himself shot so his son could collect insurance money. The only violence he’s ever been involved in is this, which was to have himself executed. So, he’s not a danger to the community. The only person he’s a danger to is himself. He immediately surrendered — immediately went to rehab after this incident.
The defense attorney said the bullet that Murdaugh apparently wished would end his life “didn’t actually penetrate” Murdaugh’s skull. Rather, Murdaugh suffered a possible minor scull fracture and some minor bleeding to the brain as the bullet missed its apparently intended mark. Harpootlian further clarified that the bullet struck the back of Murdaugh’s head.
Murdaugh did not appear injured in court. The back of his head was turned toward the assembled cameras through most of the appearance.
Harpootlian said Murdaugh went to a detox facility after he left the hospital for immediate treatment from the Sept. 4 incident. From detox, Murdaugh attempted to enter rehab.
“Unfortunately the place he was at did not have a bed, and so we had to find him another bed,” Harpootlian said.
“This was being paid for by insurance,” Harpootlian added — presumably with reference to Murdaugh’s treatment but perhaps also with reference to his own representation.
He then balked at the state’s suggestion that Murdaugh was a man of money.
“I can tell you, as a result of the recent events, he is not a man of significant means anymore,” Harpootlian said. “Everything he owns is basically” gone.
“He doesn’t have the financial means to leave the country,” the attorney said later. “His connections are to this county. He’s got nowhere to go.”
The defense characterized Murdaugh as a man who wished to set things straight by admitting his own wrongs. Harpootlian explained the genesis of the instant case at length:
Your honor, he has had a tremendous opioid addiction. The death of his wife and son have put him over the edge in terms of that addition, and that is one of the major reasons why he considered having himself killed.
[ . . . ]
There’s no evidence of danger to the community or evidence he would flee the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution. He . . . the way these charges came about is that Mr. Griffin and I visited him at the detox facility on Monday of this week. He indicated he wanted to tell the truth. And I think SLED [the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division] will affirm that they were expecting to show up down there and show him a lineup — they’re investigating a drive-by shooting — when he and we decided he should call SLED. We asked them to record the conversation in which he detailed every element of what he is charged with today. Total cooperation. Gave them the name. Told them about the gun. Told them about the knife. And we believe that was totally honest and forth — forthright with that. So, he himself has put himself in this by what he did to begin with. But he’s attempting to make amends by being truthful. He wants to cooperate with law enforcement.
“His wife and son were brutally murdered, and that has had an extraordinary effect on him,” Harpootlian continued as Murdaugh appeared to begin to sob.
Harpootlian paused. The sound of clicking camera shutters from gathered press photographers immediately started to fill the air — adding to the tension.
“Okay?” the attorney asked.
Murdaugh nodded yes.
“So, we’d ask you to allow to go and help him heal himself,” Harpootlian said as he returned his attention to the judge. “A surety bond is not needed in this case. And the fact of the matter is his financial condition is ruinous.”
Harpootlian suggested that requiring a surety bond would prevent Murdaugh from obtaining drug addiction treatments.
“If anyone wants to see the face of what opioid addiction does, you’re looking at it,” Harpootlian added toward the end of his lengthy argument. “This is a horrible, horrible disease.”
Judge Alexander said she would require Murdaugh to surrender his passport and to waive extradition. No one contested those options. But she said she didn’t feel Murdaugh was a “risk to the community.” She set a $10,000 personal recognizance bond for the charge alleging insurance fraud, $5,000 for the count of conspiracy, and another $5,000 for the accusation that Murdaugh filed a false police report. The total bond was $20,000, she reiterated.
Judge Alexander then said that if Murdaugh leaves his treatment facility, his bond will be revoked and a warrant will be issued for his arrest.
“Yes, ma’am,” Murdaugh said when asked if he understood the terms of the bond. He then signed paperwork acknowledging as such.
Additional proceedings were scheduled for next month.
The defendant who is accused of actually pulling the trigger and shooting Murdaugh faces separate proceedings.
Watch the hearing below:
Read some of the case file below:
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