The Impact of the Murdaugh Case on Perceptions About White Collar Crime

Murdaugh Case
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The State of South Carolina v. Richard Alexander Murdaugh murder trial that ended in March of this year raises important questions about how the wealthy and powerful are treated by the criminal justice system and how “white collar criminals” often face disparately less punishment than other offenders, despite the great harm their actions cause.

The Murdaugh Case

The salacious events culminating in the arrest of one of the most prominent members of the South Carolina legal community shone a light on much more than just the murders themselves. Murdaugh, who goes by his middle name, Alex, was found guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie and their 22-year-old son, Paul, on June 7, 2021. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

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The murder investigation unleashed new interest in the death of Mallory Beach, a friend of Paul Murdaugh who died in a boat crash in which Paul was believed to be drunk at the helm. Details about the ensuing cover up, as well as Alex Murdaugh’s interference in the investigation, highlighted concerns about how the wealthy and powerful can abuse their status in the community to insulate themselves from criminal and civil culpability.

Nowhere was the incredible influence of the family’s wealth and power demonstrated more strongly than in the death of Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh’s long-time housekeeper. Her mysterious death, allegedly caused by a fall on the Murdaugh’s property, was also reopened. The revelation that Alex Murdaugh represented to her surviving sons that he would “sue himself” to obtain an insurance settlement for them, which he subsequently pocketed and never told them about, is a breach of trust few of us can fathom.

The death of Stephen Smith, who was found dead at age 19 on a rural road close to the Murdaugh property, has also been reopened based on evidence allegedly found during the recent murder investigations.

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As the investigation into Maggie and Paul’s murders unfolded, it uncovered a mountain of evidence demonstrating Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes, in which he diverted client’s settlement monies to himself to the tune of an estimated $8 million. A landmark ruling in the case dubbed the “trial of the century” by the local media occurred when the judge ruled that the prosecution could use evidence of Murdaugh’s financial crimes as relevant to motive. Prosecution witnesses included those with personal knowledge of Murdaugh’s financial situation prior to the murders, including former clients who had been victimized by his schemes.

The Financial Crimes of Other Lawyers

Unfortunately, the financial crimes committed by Murdaugh are far from isolated incidents. Consider the Jack Abramoff scandal in which the perpetrator was sentenced to five years in 2006 for defrauding Native American tribes out of at least $45 million. Or former attorney Nathan E. Hardwick, IV, who was convicted in 2018 of stealing more than $26 million from his firm and client trust accounts which he used for gambling, private jets and “companions.” Hardwick received a 180-month sentence which was quickly appealed on the basis that the sentence was “substantively unreasonable.”

Then there’s Aimee Bock, who was arrested after allegedly conspiring with 46 others to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program out of more than $250 million, which was instead used for cars, vacations, and extravagant luxury items. She was released from custody without bail, and is currently awaiting trial.

Bernie Madoff, the famous orchestrater of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, which defrauded victims out of nearly $65 billion, did receive the maximum sentence of 150 years. His defense had argued that a seven-year sentence would be appropriate. He died in 2021 in a federal prison in Butner, NC.

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Humanizing White-Collar Crime

The sensational Murdaugh trial personalized white collar crime victims for the public in a way that has rarely been seen before, through direct media coverage of the trial as well as through a variety of television documentaries which interviewed victims and their families. This included family members of Gloria Satterfield, who Murdaugh exploited by secretly pocketing millions for himself that should have gone to Satterfield’s three children.

Although facing 100 other charges including theft, insurance fraud, and tax evasion, Murdaugh took the stand to testify in his own defense. Under cross-examination, Murdaugh admitted to stealing money from his clients and his former law firm, which was key in bolstering the prosecution’s theory about the motive and demonstrated Murdaugh’s callous disregard for the impact of his actions on the lives of others.

Had it not been for the murder aspect of the Murdaugh case, it is unlikely that the financial crimes alone would have received this level of scrutiny and media attention.

The Impact

The Murdaugh case does more than just call attention to the need for our society to reevaluate how we punish white-collar offenders. The Murdaugh case seems to disprove the myth on which the sentencing disparity was based – that there is no link between white collar crime and violent crime. Additionally, the access to money, resources and intelligence indicate that these criminals are able to avoid detection more often than the public may have previously known.

Heather Williams Forshey

Heather Williams Forshey is the owner of Raleigh Divorce Law Firm and holds credentials as a family law specialist, family financial mediator, and parenting coordinator. She is a brain tumor survivor and an aspiring writer. She has previously written articles for Attorney at Law Magazine on the Gabby Petito murder case, the Depp v. Heard defamation trial, and false abuse allegations in child custody cases.

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