April 16, 2024

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A federal judge sentenced convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh to 40 years in prison Monday for stealing millions of dollars from his legal clients — a punishment that can be served at the same time as a 27-year sentence previously imposed by South Carolina for related crimes.

The stakes had been raised in an otherwise routine sentencing hearing after federal prosecutors said in a filing last week that Murdaugh, 55, failed a polygraph test that he agreed to undergo as part of a plea deal. In addition, they said, they identified 11 new financial victims and another $1.3 million in stolen money.

The former personal injury lawyer faced a much harsher sentence, although U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is allowing him to serve his prison sentences for state and federal crimes concurrently. He also ordered Murdaugh to pay more than $8 million in restitution to his financial victims.

Each of the various charges in federal court carried a maximum of at least 20 years in prison, the Justice Department said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Limehouse asked Gergel to impose a 30-year sentence, arguing that “we don’t believe he is capable of living a law-abiding life as a member of society” and it would send “a very strong message about lawyers stealing money from their clients.”

Gergel said he decided to go above that to hold Murdaugh further accountable and bring justice to his victims.

“This is a reprehensible crime that deserves the most serious of sanction,” the judge said.

Murdaugh, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, appeared emotional as he addressed Gergel.

“I literally am filled with sorrow and am filled with guilt over the things that I did,” he said.

Murdaugh is already serving a life sentence without parole for the murders of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their younger son, Paul, 22, in 2021. He is attempting to appeal the conviction.

When Murdaugh pleaded guilty in September to 22 federal financial crime charges, it came with an agreement that he would subject himself to a polygraph. Federal prosecutors said he could be called to “testify fully and truthfully before any grand juries and at any other trials or other proceedings.”

But prosecutors said in a filing that Murdaugh breached the agreement, writing that “he ranks as one of the most prolific fraudsters this state has ever seen.”

Murdaugh’s lawyers denied the allegation and had said in response that they should be able to respond in documents that can be made public.

“To allow the Government to publicly accuse Murdaugh of breaching his plea agreement while also allowing the Government to hide all purported evidence supporting that accusation from the public would violate the public’s right to the truth,” the filing said.

Federal prosecutors argued that the details must not be released because of an ongoing grand jury investigation.

But Gergel on Monday said the issue was “moot” after attorneys spoke about the prosecution’s filing in private chambers.

Murdaugh last year pleaded guilty to 14 counts of money laundering, five counts of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud and other charges. Prosecutors said Murdaugh, who worked at the family’s Hampton County law firm, cheated clients out of settlement money and created fraudulent bank accounts.

Among his financial victims was the estate of his family’s longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died following a “trip and fall accident” at the Murdaughs’ home in 2018.

Satterfield’s son, Michael “Tony” Satterfield, addressed Murdaugh on Monday as part of a victim impact statement.

“I pray for you daily,” Satterfield said, staring directly at his mother’s former employer. “I just want God to work on you and your heart.”

The sentencing in federal court comes a year after Murdaugh’s high-profile double murder trial, in which he took the stand to deny that he fatally shot his wife and son, but admitted to some financial misconduct.

State prosecutors accused him of murdering them to gain pity and to distract from financial crimes threatening to topple his reputation in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where three generations of family patriarchs had wielded power as the top prosecutors for decades.

Murdaugh said he suffered from a longtime addiction to prescription opioids, which he testified clouded his judgment.

He told the court on Monday that he is “937 days clean.”

“I do believe that my addiction contributed to me doing some of the things that I did,” Murdaugh said. “And Judge Gergel, I hope with every cell of my existence, I hope that I will not have done what I did had I not been addicted to opioids.”

His federal sentencing caps a long-winding legal saga for the once-prominent lawyer.

In January, his defense team attempted to get him a new double murder trial after alleging that a court clerk had tampered with the jury and tainted the verdict as she sought to write a book about the case. But while a judge found that Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill was not a wholly credible witness, jurors were not persuaded by her actions

Hill, who resigned from her post last month, had denied in her testimony that she tampered with the jury for financial gain or any other reason.

Regardless of what happens with Murdaugh’s murder appeal, he will remain in prison for at least four decades.

Juliette Arcodia reported from Charleston and Erik Ortiz from New York.

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