The Night the Lights Went Out in SC
The Collapse of a Lowcountry Legal Dynasty
The name “Murdaugh” has held a position of honor in the South Carolina Lowcountry for over three generations. In addition to a private law practice, at least one Murdaugh served as the 14th Circuit Solicitor for over 80 years. The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office sits between two of the South’s most important cultural centers, Charleston and Savannah—the Office is part of a region steeped in cultural mysticism. The Solicitor’s Office has long been home to a member of the Murdaugh clan and Hampton, South Carolina, which falls under the jurisdiction of the 14th Circuit, has served as the home of a private, powerful family-owned law firm. Recently, however, a string of incidents worthy of an Agatha Christie or John Grisham novel have forced the family and their history into the national (and international) spotlight. The newfound attention has also called into question the integrity of the Solicitor’s office.
A Quiet, Powerful Corner of SC
South Carolina’s 14th Circuit covers Allendale, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper, and Beaufort counties in the southernmost tip of the state. Just to the north lies Charleston, South Carolina, in all of its metropolitan historical and cultural splendor. Likewise, Savannah, Georgia occupies a similar position just to the South. Hilton Head, South Carolina, long a premier summer destination, is located smack dab in Beaufort County along the coast. As a result, the 14th Circuit is a popular, wealthy, and well-educated area of the state, with Beaufort County itself boasting the highest median income as well as a population with a high number of bachelor’s degrees.
South Carolina created the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office early in the last century as counties in the Lowcountry were split up and reorganized. In 1920, Randolph Murdaugh, Sr., won the first elected title of Solicitor of the 14th Circuit until his death in 1940 in a train wreck. Then, his son Randolph Murdaugh, Jr. carried the torch until his retirement in 1986. Randolph Murdaugh, III then took office and served the citizens of the 14th Circuit until his retirement to private practice in the family-owned law firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, & Detrick (PMPED), in 2005. For over 85 years, the Murdaugh family held the position of Solicitor in the 14th Circuit. To put the family’s political reign in perspective, the Murdaughs’ dynasty is regarded as one of the longest in the entire history of the United States. In other words, the Murdaughs have a tremendous amount of power and influence.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
As of late, the family’s longstanding service is increasingly viewed as insidious rather than a mark of distinction by the 14th Circuit’s residents. The reason, however, isn’t a change of heart now that a Murdaugh no longer fills the Solicitor’s office. Rather, it’s because the Murdaugh family has been at the center of several civil and criminal investigations, including the wrongful death of a housekeeper, and the mysterious death of a young man in the Circuit. Specifically, the controversies center around Alex Murdaugh, son of Randolph Murdaugh, III, and his family. The cases range from conspiracy to murder and appear to span over the course of at least six years.
Timeline of Events
First, a 19-year-old boy named Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of the road in 2015. At the time, Stephen’s official cause of death was reported as a hit and run. Sandy Smith, Stephen’s mother, has said that, even back in 2015, the story of Stephen’s death seemed strange because it kept changing–first she was told someone shot Stephen in the head, then that Stephen died in a hit-and-run, finally that Stephen was simply beaten up. Not to mention, Notwithstanding the coroner’s report concluding Smith was a victim of a hit and run, in [month] of 2021, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced that it was reopening Stephen’s case after having obtained information surrounding a murder investigation tied to the Murdaughs.
Second, the Murdaugh family housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who for two decades worked in the Murdaugh household, died in February 2018 after a trip and fall accident. According to court documents filed in September 2021, Gloria’s sons have named Alex Murdaugh, son of Randolph Murdaugh, III, in a wrongful death suit alleging that he is responsible for their mother’s death. More to the point, they allege that Alex Murdaugh, back in 2018, promised the family that he would sue himself to access insurance money and provide that money to Gloria’s family so that they are taken care of. The sons also claim that the circumstances of their mother’s death were never fully explained to them, and the authenticity of the slip and fall narrative has been called into question.
As if that wasn’t enough, an accident, taking place in late February of 2019, left young Mallory Beach missing for a week. It wasn’t until March 3, 2019, that Mallory Beach’s body was discovered in a marsh near the scene of a boating accident. Mallory died after attending an oyster roast and riding a boat back home. One minute cruising along the water, the next crashing into a bridge and being knocked ashore. In early March, Mallory’s family filed a wrongful death suit against various establishments that had served alcohol to the underage Mallory and her friends–namely, one Paul Murdaugh. In April of 2019, Paul Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh’s son, and Randolph Murdaugh, III’s grandson, were indicted for boating under the influence causing death, and an additional two counts of boating under the influence causing serious injury. On May 6, 2019, Paul Murdaugh pled not guilty on all charges, and the criminal and civil cases continued to move forward. On June 4, 2019, the court-ordered mediation in the Beach’s wrongful death suit failed, setting the case up for a lengthy, contentious trial.
The Murdaugh’s story does not end there. On June 7, 2019, Alex Murdaugh discovered the lifeless bodies of both his son, Paul, and his wife, Maggie, on their 1,700-acre estate in Colleton County. On the night in question, Alex Murdaugh placed a call at 10:07 pm to the local police dispatch. From that night, things began to escalate quickly for Alex Murdaugh. Between July and September, several Freedom of Information Act requests were submitted for the police evidence in Mallory Beach’s boating accident. In addition, the Solicitor’s office recused themselves regarding the investigations into the deaths of Maggie Beach and Paul Murdaugh. Rewards have been placed for anyone who can provide information. Finally, on September 4, 2021, Alex Murdaugh was shot in the head on the side of the road in Hampton County.
No End in Sight
The road continues to only get bumpier for Alex Murdaugh. It came to light, shortly after Murdaugh was shot, that he had been stealing from his law firm and had a drug problem warranting rehabilitation. Moreover, the man responsible for shooting Alex Murdaugh, Curtis Edward Smith, provided statements alleging that Alex Murdaugh had hired Smith to kill him in order to obtain $10 million in life insurance money for his surviving son. Having had his law license suspended and his assets frozen, and having been taken into custody since leaving rehab, Alex Murdaugh faces the daunting prospect of multiple civil lawsuits, several criminal investigations, and an untold amount of money in outstanding liabilities from the years-long alleged illegality of his and his family’s actions. As it stands now, there have not been any allegations regarding Alex’s brothers Randolph Murdaugh, IV, or John Marvin Murdaugh. Randolph continues to run the family law firm PMPED and, in that capacity, is cooperating with law enforcement investigating the various thefts Alex Murdaugh perpetrated in his role as an attorney with PMPED.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
On November 4, 2021, Alex Murdaugh was indicted in connection with his alleged assisted suicide attempt and plot to defraud his life insurance company. From being touted as one of the most respected and revered names in law to one now associated with repeated scandal, the Murdaughs’ descent from high society is telling for the legal profession. As a profession, lawyers wield a tremendous amount of power, trust, and responsibility. What can take years, decades, or almost a century to build can be destroyed in the span of a few years (if not months). At our best, we help move society forward, and, at worst, we prove ourselves deserving of our sometimes poor reputation in the general public. Hopefully, the wheels of justice will continue to turn and uncover even more insidious attempts by the Murdaughs to defraud their neighbors and communities. In the meantime, one can only hope the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s office and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division can regain the trust of the people sooner rather than later. As for the Murdaughs, it is difficult to imagine a painless return from the events of the past few years. Pain, however, is often an unavoidable consequence of healing.