BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. — Convicted murderer and disgraced former lawyer Alex Murdaugh was seen in court for his first public appearance since being sentenced to double life in prison for murdering his wife and son in March.
A trial date has been set for Murdaugh's alleged state financial crimes.
Murdaugh appeared in front of Judge Clifton Newman on Thursday in Beaufort County. Dick Harpootlian, Jim Griffin and Phillip Barber sat beside him while prosecuting attorney Creighton Waters asked the judge to schedule a trial before the end of this year.
"Alex Murdaugh represents 101 total charges for an alleged loss of almost $8.8 million dollars," Waters told the courtroom. "This is about allegations that represent an assault on the state judiciary and because of that they need to be answered."
Murdaugh's defense team pushed back on this.
"What is the hurry? He's pleading in federal court next Thursday every allegation the state has made the victims will have their day in court," Harpootlian told the judge. "Mr. Murdaugh's indicated he would plead guilty to the state charges, but the state insists on doing them in serial so they get three convictions so they get life without parole on a guy who's already serving two life sentences without parole."
Ultimately, Newman scheduled the new trial date for Nov. 27. News 19 wanted to know more about what the timeline could mean for both sides, so we contacted South Carolina defense attorney and former US attorney Pete Strom.
"You have victims out there, and under our state constitution, victims have rights," Strom explains, based on his years of experience in the legal field. "And if they want to have their day in court, then the solicitor — in this case the attorney general who's prosecuting this case — probably decided to give them their day in court."
Strom says he believes that's why the prosecution continues to pursue charges despite Murdaugh being behind bars for the murder charges. Regarding the defense's pushback, "When you're on the defense side, delay, delay, delay, delay, delay," Strom said.
"Cases never get better, they usually get worse and people's memories fade, the passion goes away, something else happens," Strom continues. "There's still a lot of energy about this case and of course that's a concern if you're a defense lawyer. Everyone's still talking about this case."
Not only is it typical for a defense team in any case to want to extend the timeline, according to Strom, but he said this effort might be partially due to legislative immunity.
"Dick Harpootlian is a member of the South Carolina Senate, and legislators have immunity during the session. And the session normally runs from the second Tuesday in January to May, June depending on what they have going on, so he would be exempt from attending trial for the next six months," Strom said. "So the question is, do you have it now, or do you wait 'til summer, fall next year?"
Newman decided to get through it this calendar year, but ultimately, Strom said he doesn't think the trial date will matter.
"The financial crimes are slam dunks. He's already confessed to those on the stand. It's clearly admissible in his fraud case," Strom said of his opinion. "Frankly, I'll bet you a lot of money that case won't go to trial. I know the judge set the trial date this morning. That case will end up being a guilty plea."
There's no timeline on when that could be if Murdaugh does enter a guilty plea as Strom predicts. However, Strom said it could be within the next few weeks.
The defense is waiting on the state's response to the team's motion for a new trial.
Murdaugh's team claims that the Colleton County clerk of court, Becky Hill, tampered with the jury during the six-week trial. The defense argues this is a Sixth Amendment violation that warrants a new trial.
According to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, the state has 10 days to respond to this motion. Once the state responds, the defense will have five days to issue a reply. Then, the Court of Appeals says it will begin deliberations on how to proceed.
In Strom's opinion, the court could decide on the Nov. 27 financial crime trial date.
"I do think that the new trial will be figured out first," Strom said. "I suspect that that hearing will happen sooner rather than later."
Murdaugh was not the only person to appear in court today concerning the financial crimes. Cory Fleming and Russell Laffitte also went in front of Judge Newman.
Fleming was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he admitted to helping Murdaugh steal millions of dollars from his law clients.
Fleming is a former attorney and close friend of Murdaugh who pleaded guilty last month to fraud, stemming from the settlement money from the death of Murdaugh's former housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, and other cases.
In court, Fleming's attorney pointed out that her client was the first to come forward, admit guilt, repay the money and cooperate with prosecutors. Fleming's wife and parents stood to acknowledge their support of Fleming as he wept.
In the end, Judge Newman sentenced Fleming to 10 years in state prison and 10 years concurrent to the sentence he's serving now on his federal conviction.
Regarding Rusell Laffitte, the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank is still waiting on a decision for a trial date for his state charges.
Judge Newman revisited this issue to make a final decision in the coming weeks.
He's facing 21 counts of financial crimes involving stealing $8 million from clients.
Laffitte's attorneys are asking for a fall 2025 trial, with the state arguing it should come quicker.
Laffitte has already been sentenced to seven years behind bars for his federal crimes after being found guilty of helping Murdaugh steal more than $3.7 million from their victims.