Thursday was a day of reckoning for Alex Murdaugh, a day a long time coming.
Although revelations about his 10-year string of thefts of millions of dollars began to surface two years ago this month, Thursday was the first time that Murdaugh — a convicted killer, disbarred lawyer — pleaded guilty to 22 counts of financial fraud.
Only with his admission Thursday that he was guilty of numerous financial crimes, and with U.S. Judge Richard Gergel’s acceptance, did Murdaugh formally become a convicted thief.
At his murder trial earlier this year, Murdaugh had taken the witness stand and admitted to years of thefts from clients, friends and law partners. And Murdaugh also admitted in 2022 in a civil court case that he stole $4.3 million from the estate of his late family housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.
But none of those actions had quite the force that Murdaugh’s guilty plea Thursday had in the windowless courtroom on the fourth floor of the historic Charleston federal courthouse.
Murdaugh stole from those who trusted him the most — former clients, his law partners and friends. His crimes were money laundering, conspiracy, bank fraud and wire fraud.
Unsaid during Thursday’s hearing was that for at least 10 years, until September 2021 when he was first arrested, Murdaugh had lived a secret life, stealing millions and spending at least some of it on an illegal drug habit and at the same time going millions of dollars into debt. Neither his partners at what was billed as one of South Carolina’s most successful law firms, PMPED, or his wife, Maggie, knew the extent of his clandestine lawlessness.
The guilty plea was a win of sorts for federal prosecutors Emily Limehouse, Katie Stoughton and Winston Holiday. They had succeeded in getting Murdaugh to plead guilty first, beating state prosecutors who had begun to indict Murdaugh for financial crimes nearly two years ago.
Although a state grand jury guided by prosecutors in the office of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson had started returning financial crimes indictments against Murdaugh in the fall of 2021, the state’s cases were delayed by the discovery in spring 2022 of evidence that allowed them to put him on trial for murder.
That trial began in January of this year and lasted until early March, when a Colleton County jury found Murdaugh guilty of killing his wife and son Paul in June 2021 at their rural 1,770-acre estate.
With state prosecutors’ attention focused on the murder trial, federal prosecutors assembled a financial crimes case against Murdaugh that covered many of the same 100-plus offenses that the state charged Murdaugh with.
In May of this year a federal grand jury indicted Murdaugh on the financial crimes. Since then, federal prosecutors have worked with Murdaugh’s lawyers to schedule Thursday’s guilty plea.
Murdaugh won’t make an appearance in state court on financial charges until Nov. 27. That date was set last week by state Judge Clifton Newman.
The federal plea, and a subsequent sentencing by Gergel at a date yet to be determined, may eventually allow Murdaugh to serve some of his prison time in federal prison. Federal correctional facilities are generally considered more comfortable, with better food and medical facilities, than state prison. ‘
In the same courthouse last November, Murdaugh’s childhood friend, Russell Laffitte, a banker who had helped him use his bank to steal millions, was found guilty by a federal jury of six counts of various fraud. Laffitte is now appealing his conviction.
Murdaugh is now serving two consecutive sentences in state prison for killing his wife and son. Murdaugh faces a total of 130 years in prison for the crimes he pleaded guilty to Thursday, but federal prosecutors have described any federal sentence he gets as a “formality” given that he is serving life sentences for murder.
This story will be updated.