CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh did something Thursday he hasn’t done in the two years since his life of privilege and power started to unravel — plead guilty to a crime.
Murdaugh admitted in federal court to 22 counts of financial fraud and money laundering.
Murdaugh, 55, is serving life without parole in a South Carolina prison for shooting his wife, Maggie, and younger son Paul. He has denied any role in the killings since their deaths in June 2021 and insisted he was innocent in two days of testimony earlier this year before he was convicted of two counts of murder.
"There’s two things Alex will tell you. One, he stole the money. Two, he did not kill Maggie and Paul,” defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said after the hearing.
The federal guilty plea likely locks in years if not decades in prison for the disbarred lawyer, even if his murder conviction and sentence in state court are overturned on appeal.
Murdaugh told the judge he wanted to be held accountable for stealing from his clients and do right by his surviving son.
“I want to take responsibility. I want my son to see me take responsibility. It’s my hope that by taking responsibility that the people I’ve hurt can begin to heal," said Murdaugh, standing in his orange South Carolina prison jumpsuit.
He will be sentenced at a later date. Federal prosecutor Emily Limehouse suggested at a news conference after the hearing that prosecutors will ask for a lengthy term.
“Our goal in holding him accountable for the financial crimes in federal court is to ensure that he’s never a free man again,” Limehouse said.
Investigators think Murdaugh started stealing from his family law firm by keeping fees meant to be shared by everyone and inflating his expenses as early as 2005, Limehouse said.
The deal for pleading guilty in federal court is straightforward. Prosecutors will ask that the federal sentence Murdaugh gets run at the same time as any prison term he serves from a state court. They won't give him credit defendants typically receive for pleading guilty.
In exchange, authorities get a requirement placed in almost every plea deal, which is especially significant in this case: “The Defendant agrees to be fully truthful and forthright with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies by providing full, complete and truthful information about all criminal activities about which he/she has knowledge,” reads the standard language included in Murdaugh's deal.
That could be a broad range of wrongdoing. The federal charges against the disgraced attorney, whose family were both prosecutors and founders of a heavy-hitting law firm that no longer carries the Murdaugh name in tiny Hampton County, deal with stealing money from at least five clients and creating fraudulent bank accounts.
Murdaugh admitted Thursday to stealing from money meant to provide care for a man paralyzed from the neck down in a wreck, from two sisters who were children when they lost their mother and brother in a crash, the estate of his longtime maid who died in a fall at the family home and from others.
Murdaugh still faces about 100 different charges in state court. Authorities said he committed insurance fraud by trying to have someone kill him so his surviving son could get $10 million in life insurance, but the shot only grazed Murdaugh's head. Investigators said Murdaugh also failed to pay taxes on the money he stole, took settlement money from several clients and his family's law firm, and ran a drug and money laundering ring.
He is scheduled to face trial on at least some of those charges at the end of November. State prosecutors have insisted they want him to face justice for each one. Murdaugh's lawyers suggested Thursday there are serious questions if that trial will happen, but didn't specify why.
As Limehouse gave the judge details in federal court about each scheme to steal money, Murdaugh rocked back and forth.
Judge Richard Gergel asked Murdaugh if he disagreed with any of the prosecution's description and the former attorney, whose law license is now revoked, referred to his lawyer Jim Griffin.
When Murdaugh represented a woman who died in a wreck, he didn't steal from her estate — just her surviving husband's money, Griffin said.
“Doesn’t make it any better, but that’s just one fine point of clarification,” he added.
Murdaugh’s previous job was also mentioned a few times during the hearing. As it started, Gergel said he knew Murdaugh was familiar with the standard questions that defendants get asked as they plead guilty and mostly struck to the script.
But when Gergel asked if Murdaugh was sober, the former lawyer — who blames decades of painkiller and other drug abuse for his crimes — said he has been “proudly clean” for 744 days.
That would be Sept. 7, 2021, three days after police said he asked a friend to kill him on the side of that lonely Lowcountry two-lane road.
Griffin said Murdaugh's drug use will likely play a big part in the sentencing report that will be written before his next hearing. Neither side would commit to a specific amount of time they hope Murdaugh spends behind bars until that report is completed.
Murdaugh pleaded guilty to 14 counts of money laundering, five counts of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The click of his pen as he signed the documents reverberated around the quiet courtroom.
Each charge carries a maximum of at least 20 years in prison. Some have a maximum 30-year sentence.
Other requirements of the plea deal include Murdaugh taking a lie detector test if asked and that he pay back the $9 million he is accused of stealing.
That money must be turned over to federal authorities immediately, which could create friction because what assets Murdaugh still has are currently controlled by the state.
Collins reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
James Pollard And Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press