‘Disgrace.’ Federal judge shows no mercy for Murdaugh’s many crimes, betrayals

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Federal Judge Richard Gergel never once raised his voice in anger on Monday at the financial crimes sentencing hearing for Alex Murdaugh.

Gergel didn’t have to. The judge’s clenched jaw and icy stare throughout the hearing at the convicted killer and admitted fraudster spoke volumes.

A no-nonsense Gergel interrupted Murdaugh’s lawyer Jim Griffin, finished sentences for him and in short order shot down nearly all Griffin’s arguments for a lighter sentence.

When the hour-plus long hearing was over in Charleston, Gergel gave Murdaugh, 55, what amounted to 40 years in federal prison, which means that the formerly respected lawyer likely won’t be out until he is in his 90s.

In all, Murdaugh stole some $10 million from 27 victims over a 15-year period; $6 million is still missing, federal prosecutors charged.

It was, legal observers said, perhaps the stiffest sentence for a white collar criminal defendant ever handed down in a South Carolina court. With the sentence, Murdaugh joins a pantheon of American fraudsters, whose names were used as comparisons in court Monday: Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, crypto-scammer Sam Bankman-Fried and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

In court, federal prosecutors only asked for a sentence of 30 years. In comparison, Bankman-Fried was sentenced last week to 25 years, Holmes received 11 years and Skilling ultimately served 12 years. Only Madoff received more time, having been sentenced to 150 years. He died in prison in 2021.

But for Murdaugh to get out of prison in 40 years, his lawyers — Griffin, Dick Harpootlian and Phil Barber — must be successful in their appeals to overturn the consecutive life sentences in state prison Murdaugh is currently serving for killing his wife, Maggie, and son Paul. Murdaugh was convicted in March 2023 of killing Maggie and Paul execution style at their remote Colleton County estate in 2021.

While those appeals are pending, most assume that Murdaugh’s appearance Monday will be his last in public for the foreseeable future.

The crimes for which Gergel sentenced Murdaugh on Monday were money laundering, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and wire fraud affecting a financial institution.

What made Murdaugh unique, Gergel said, was that he had not preyed on investors looking to get rich, but individuals he had formed personal relationships with.

Murdaugh had stolen from his legal clients, who included society’s most vulnerable, Gergel told the courtroom — motherless children, a widower and a paraplegic.

These victims came to Murdaugh’s office looking for assistance, Gergel said. Instead,they found “rampant, uncontrolled dishonesty” that brought them nothing but anguish.

Murdaugh was able to steal from them because he had gotten them big settlements in personal injury or wrongful death cases, money that came into his law firm in installments, according to evidence in his case. Once the money was in his law firm, Murdaugh was able to manipulate the funds into his own accounts.

“The defendant’s conduct has brought disgrace and disrepute to himself, his law firm, the Hampton County bar, the South Carolina bar, if not the entire court system,” Gergel said.

In a 13-minute address to the court, Murdaugh lifted his lanky 6-foot-4 frame, faced the judge and attempted once again to apologize for what he had done.

I left a lot of damage, a lot of wreckage, a lot of overall havoc in my wake. I know that,” Murdaugh said. “I acknowledge that I became that which I most despise, a hypocrite, and I know that I know that I hurt, humiliated and otherwise let down so many people.”

Standing shackled in an orange state Department of Corrections jumpsuit, and wearing white Crocs-like footwear, with his face not visible to the press and other courtroom onlookers in the audience, Murdaugh attempted to cast his actions as both the product of a decade-long addiction to prescription opiates.

“As I stand here today I am 937 days clean and I am very proud of that fact,” Murdaugh told the court. “I do believe that my addiction contributed to me doing some of the things that I did... with every cell of my existence, I hope, that I would not have done the things that I did had I not been addicted to opiates.”

Gergel appeared unmoved by Murdaugh’s claim that drugs caused his crimes. And the judge made it clear that the dynamics behind the 40-year sentence were far more than just cold the black-letter of the law.

“No truly impaired person could pull off these complex transactions,” the judge said.

Murdaugh had been a “groomer,” using his charisma and charm to “seduce” his close friends, ex-banker Russell Laffitte and former lawyer Cory Fleming, into helping him steal millions, the judge noted. Laffitte and Fleming, once respectable, well-to-do citizens, were lured by the “siren song of affluence” and are now serving time in prison for aiding Murdaugh. Laffitte is serving seven years in federal prison; Fleming has a projected release date of December 2032 from his state prison financial crimes sentence.

Perhaps worst of all, Gergel indicated, was Murdaugh’s betrayal of the law, of his fellow lawyers and the duties that lawyers owe to protect clients. The stiff sentence is a warning to all lawyers, Gergel said, who should see their law license only as “a license to do good.”

Instead, Murdaugh plumbed the “dark side” of the law, Gergel said.

Emily Limehouse, the lead federal prosecutor, told Gergel that although Murdaugh says he spent all the money he stole on drugs, “It doesn’t add up; it doesn’t make sense.” Limehouse also said Murdaugh may have had other accomplices who have not yet been brought to justice.

Some $6 million in stolen money is still missing, she said. “We don’t believe the drug abuse is why he committed these schemes and we don’t believe that’s where he spent those six million dollars.”

Two of Murdaugh’s victims spoke Monday.

Tony Satterfield, standing with his attorney, Eric Bland, told Murdaugh that he prays for Murdaugh regularly. His case represented Murdaugh’s biggest crime: a $4 million theft of insurance proceeds that should have gone to Satterfield and his brother. Murdaugh had hatched a scheme to steal the money in 2018 after Tony’s mother, Gloria Satterfield, died of injuries in a fall at Murdaugh’s house.

Bland said Murdaugh “polluted” the legal profession in South Carolina.

Pamela Pinckney, with her attorney, state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, said that she had forgiven Murdaugh and told him, “I love you with the love of Jesus Christ.”

No members of Murdaugh’s family were in the courtroom Monday.

Instead, there was a who’s who of South Carolina law enforcement: Mark Keel, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division chief; Steven Jensen, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Columbia Field Office; U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Adai Boroughs and assorted FBI agents. Also present were federal prosecutors Limehouse, Katie Stoughton and Winston Holliday, who worked on Murdaugh’s case.

Representatives of Murdaugh’s old law firm, now called the Parker Law Group, were also present. They were Danny Henderson, Ronnie Crosby and Lee Cope, and the firm’s lawyer, Jim May. Also present was Jan Malinowski, president of Palmetto State Bank, the bank that ex-banker Laffitte used to help Murdaugh steal money from clients. With Malinowski was one of the bank’s attorneys, Greg Harris.

Attorney Mark Tinsley also was present. A lawsuit filed by the Allendale lawyer on behalf of the family of Mallory Beach, who died in 2019 when a boat allegedly piloted by Paul Murdaugh crashed, led to the exposure of Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes. Tinsley also represents one of Murdaugh’s financial victims, Arthur Badger.

Gergel rebuffed some of Griffin’s arguments with zinger-like judgments. When Griffin at one point said that there was an “irony” to using Murdaugh’s state tax evasion guilty plea as a reason for an enhanced federal sentence, Gergel quipped, “There are many ironies in this case.”

Later, when Griffin attempted to soften the impact of Murdaugh’s crimes, telling Gergel that many of Murdaugh’s victims didn’t know that he had stolen their money, Gergel snapped, “That’s a distinction without a difference.”

Griffin also said that a “turf war” between state and federal law enforcement agencies is the reason that Murdaugh is being prosecuted in federal court for the essentially the same financial crimes he has already been prosecuted and sentenced for in state court.

But Gergel said there were two sovereigns — state and federal — and each had justification for prosecuting the case.

Defending a sentence that will likely guarantee Murduagh dies in prison, Gergel also said that he saw little hope for reform from Murdaugh.

“Based on his past I think that if he were released he would continue his criminal activity,” Gergel said.