For decades, the Murdaugh family operated in that rarefied world of wealth and privilege that few of us will ever experience.
So on Thursday, when Alex Murdaugh, shackled and wearing a jail jumpsuit, came before a Hampton County judge charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and falsifying a police report, observers couldn’t help but comment on his downfall, his fall from grace or whatever other cliche seemed to fit the moment.
Certainly his attire was a drastic change from the black tuxedo he’s seen wearing in a frequently shared Facebook photo or the suits and ties he wore as an attorney, but even in his short court appearance it was clear that, despite the jumpsuit and shackles, Murdaugh’s privilege remained intact.
Murdaugh, by his own attorney’s account, was the instigator.
His attorney, State Sen. Dick Harpootlian appeared on the “Today” show telling the story.
It was Murdaugh who allegedly hired a former client, Curtis Smith, to kill him so that Murdaugh’s son, Buster, could receive a $10 million insurance payment.
It was Murdaugh who lied to investigators about “the attack,” wasting investigators’ time and taxpayer dollars.
Yet, Murdaugh was given a $20,000 personal recognizance bond, meaning he paid zero dollars and still walked out of jail and off to an undisclosed, out-of-state drug treatment facility.
Smith, on the other hand, had a $55,000 surety bond, meaning he had to pay to get out of jail. He posted his bond the same day Murdaugh was in court.
Yes, Smith’s charges are different from Murdaugh’s. They include presenting a firearm, insurance misrepresentation, conspiracy, assisting a person in committing suicide and assault and battery.
But again, it’s Murdaugh who started this chain of events.
It’s Murdaugh who was seemingly prepared to die (though onlookers noted no visible signs of the gunshot wound he reportedly sustained at Smith’s hands less than two weeks ago). It was Murdaugh who, as Harpootlian tells it, was ready to commit insurance fraud.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Pretrial detainees make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. jail population ... Many of them are only there because they can’t afford bail.”
The Prison Policy Initiative’s latest report notes that about 555,000 people are sitting in jail for that very reason.
In this case, Smith had to put forward some money to walk out of jail. Murdaugh did not.
Since June 7, when Murdaugh called 911 to report that his wife Maggie and his son Paul had been murdered at the family’s Islandton hunting lodge, the world has watched and speculated as each new twist and turn in Alex Murdaugh’s story comes out.
Each new development seems more shocking and surprising than the last, but the disparity in the bail amounts and requirements for Murdaugh and Smith remind us that the story isn’t nearly so shocking or surprising in many ways.
They say money talks, so do privilege, connections, and power.