Attorney: I trusted Alex Murdaugh despite odd fee payments
A lawyer testifying in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial in South Carolina said he trusted Murdaugh even though the disgraced lawyer suggested an unusual way to split fees from a case the two had worked on together.
Attorney Chris Wilson said he had no reason to be suspicious when Murdaugh asked to have the $792,000 fee deposited directly into his account, rather than paying it directly to the Murdaugh family law firm. At the time, Murdaugh said his intention was to protect money because his son, Paul, was involved in a wrongful death lawsuit - even though the direct payment was a violation of the firm’s rules.
“I’d known him for 30-plus years. I didn’t have any reason not to trust him,” Wilson told the jury.
Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murdering his wife, 52-year-old Maggie, and their 22-year-old son Paul. Prosecutors are arguing that Murdaugh killed them to get sympathy and buy time to hide a string of thefts. The defense says it makes no sense to think there wouldn’t be more scrutiny into Murdaugh’s life and finances after his wife and shot were shot to death.
The judge in the murder trial is allowing prosecutors to present a wide range of evidence that Murdaugh was stealing money from clients and his law firm. Defense attorneys have constantly objected before each witness, saying the financial crimes aren’t directly linked to the killings and are meant to smear Murdaugh and make him look like a horrible person.
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Another witness Thursday testified that his mother was a housekeeper and nanny for the Murdaughs for more than 20 years before she fell at their home, dying weeks later from her injuries.
The witness, Tony Satterfield, said Murdaugh told him he would get his insurers to take care of him and his brother financially. Murdaugh eventually got settlements of more than $4 million, but Satterfield said his family found out after the killings and never saw any of it.
“When the defendant came to you around the time of your mom’s funeral and said he was going to help you and file a claim on your behalf, why did you agree?” prosecutor Creighton Waters asked.
“Because I trusted him,” said Satterfield, who has since, with the help of other lawyers, collected more than $4 million from banks, officials and other lawyers involved in the settlements.
Thursday’s testimony ended with attorney Mark Tinsley testifying about a wrongful death lawsuit he filed against Murdaugh after a 19-year-old passenger died in the 2019 crash of a boat driven by Paul Murdaugh. Police said Paul Murdaugh was underage and had a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit.
“He was going to have to pay $10 million out of his pocket,” Tinsley said when asked his goal for the suit on behalf of the teen’s family.
Tinsley said Murdaugh’s lawyer said he was broke and might be able to scrape together $1 million. That led Tinsley to ask for records of all of Murdaugh’s finances, a request being put before a judge at a June 10, 2021, hearing postponed after Murdaugh’s son and wife were killed.
Murdaugh faces nearly 100 other criminal charges unrelated to the killings, ranging from theft to running a money laundering and drug ring to tax evasion to fraud for trying to arrange his own death in a roadside shooting in September 2021 so his surviving son could get $10 million in life insurance.
Wilson was the 40th witness called in the trial, which began Jan. 23. He testified away from the jury last Thursday as the judge decided whether to allow financial misdeed evidence.
Wilson said he paid Murdaugh his $792,000 fees directly when questions popped up. Murdaugh’s law firm demanded that Wilson send a second check for the fees, which he did out of his own pocket. Murdaugh promised to pay Wilson back but could only come up with $600,000.
Wilson said he had no choice but to loan his friend the remaining $192,000 and has never gotten that money back.
“I can’t tell somebody I’m holding money in my trust account that I’m not holding in my trust accounts,” Wilson said. “Trust accounts are money that belongs to someone else.”
Wilson at times had to pause as he was asked about his friend he met in high school. Their wives were sorority sisters. Their kids grew up together. They spoke several times a week.
Wilson rushed the hour and 40 minutes to Murdaugh’s home as soon as he found out about the June 7, 2021, killings.
“I walked in, hugged his neck and cried. I didn’t know what to say,” Wilson said. “I didn’t want to know what he found. I didn’t want him to have to describe it to me.”
In cross-examination, the defense mostly asked Wilson personal questions, getting him to talk about how much he loved his family. Wilson said Murdaugh appeared to never stay at the family’s home after the killings and was staying with his brothers or in-laws every time he called.
“He was distraught. He was destroyed, upset all the time, not eating, not sleeping,” Wilson said.
Murdaugh’s family dominated the legal system in tiny Hampton County for generations, both as prosecutors and private attorneys. The influence extended to banks in the rural South Carolina Lowcountry.
Palmetto State Bank CEO Jan Malinowski testified that Murdaugh’s accounts were frequently overdrawn by hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2021 and a former executive, convicted in federal court in November, would loan himself and Murdaugh money from client trust funds.
Malinowski’s dry testimony did have moments of levity. He testified Murdaugh’s account balance was overdrawn by more than $347,000 in August 2021.
Waters noted a fee on the statement. “How much is the overdraft charge?” the prosecutor asked.
“Five dollars,” Malinowski said as many in the courtroom laughed.