WALTERBORO, S.C. – The once-powerful and now disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he murdered his wife and son 13 months ago, with one of his defense attorneys calling for a speedy trial to clear his name and prod authorities to “go for the real killers.”
Wearing a white face mask beneath his shaved head and ankle chains above shiny leather shoes, the 54-year-old Murdaugh made his first court appearance in Colleton County since being indicted in the murder case last week. Despite his not guilty plea, he agreed to remain jailed without bond.
One of his lawyers, Dick Harpootlian, said the defense team wanted to avoid a bond hearing that might reveal new information about the killings and risk prejudicing potential jurors when the case goes to trial. He also said Murdaugh, already saddled with $7 million in bond on unrelated criminal charges, can't afford to put up cash for his release pending trial.
Murdaugh has been behind bars since October, charged with financial crimes and several other misdeeds that were uncovered after the killings of his wife Maggie, 52, and their 22-year-old son, Paul, at the family's Colleton County hunting estate in June 2021.
Harpootlian told a judge Wednesday that Murdaugh wants to stand trial within the next three to four months to show that investigators from South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division targeted the wrong man.
“He believes that the killer or killers are still at large and this would allow SLED to put this behind them and go for the real killers,” Harpootlian said.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters, a deputy state attorney general, replied that trying the case by January or sooner would be “very aggressive.”
“The evidence in this case is substantial and it all points back to Alex Murdaugh," Waters said. "There is forensic evidence as well as other evidence of his guilt of these murders.”
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman made no rulings in court other than denying bond for Murdaugh. He said he would issue written orders later on the speedy trial request as well as a request for a gag order to prohibit lawyers and investigators in the case from speaking to news outlets.
Murdaugh is charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possessing a weapon during a violent crime. The indictment alleges that he fatally shot his wife with a rifle and used a shotgun to kill his son.
Authorities have released no evidence of how police linked Murdaugh to the deaths after 13 months of investigation. And the hearing Wednesday provided no clues as to why a man who had no criminal history and was part of a wealthy, well-connected family that dominated the legal community in the tiny town of Hampton might have wanted to kill his own family members.
Authorities have been tight-lipped since the start of the investigation. Last year, they released the late-night 911 call in which Murdaugh reported finding the bodies of his wife and son outside by the dog kennels on his estate. The coroner said both victims had been shot multiple times.
Newman, the judge who presided over Murdaugh's hearing Wednesday, had previously denied bond for Murdaugh on the financial crimes charges. A different judge later set bond at $7 million but Murdaugh was unable to pay it and has remained in jail. His lawyers have complained several times that the bond was set too high, and said that because of lawsuits and frozen assets Murdaugh couldn’t even afford to buy underwear from the jail store.
If convicted of murder, Murdaugh faces 30 years to life in prison without parole. Under state law, prosecutors could also choose to seek the death penalty because more than one person was killed.
The four new indictments connected to the slayings added to a pile of 80 other charges lodged against Murdaugh by investigators who have scrutinized every part of his life over the past year. No trial dates have been set for any of the cases.
Prosecutors said the once-prominent attorney stole more than $8 million in settlements and other money from clients, committed fraud and lied to police by trying to arrange his own death so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. Murdaugh was also charged last month with co-running a $2 million money laundering and drug ring.
The murder charges and other cases are being prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General's Office because of links Murdaugh has to the local 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office. The office's jurisdiction includes Colleton County and Hampton County, where Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were the elected prosecutors for 87 consecutive years.