Disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh never told the family of his late housekeeper that he collected more than $4 million in insurance settlements after she fell at his home, according to testimony at his double murder trial Friday.
Outside the presence of the jury, Judge Clifton Newman heard testimony about Murdaugh’s alleged financial schemes as the court weighs whether to allow the admission of such evidence.
Prosecutors want the evidence of financial wrongdoing admitted to show that the scion of one of the state’s most powerful families was, in their words, a desperate thief on the verge of being exposed at the time of the 2021 murders of his wife and adult son.
Defense attorneys have portrayed the defendant as a loving father and husband being prosecuted after a poorly handled investigation while the real killers remain at large.
Michael Satterfield, a son of Gloria Satterfield, who worked as housekeeper for the Murdaugh family for more than 20 years, testified in the second week of the murder trial. She died a few weeks after a fall at the Murdaugh home in 2018.
Satterfield’s son told the court that Murdaugh offered to “go after my insurance company” to help their family with medical bills and other expenses.
Michael Satterfield testified that Murdaugh at one point said Satterfield and his brother could each get $100,000 from the insurance company. They never got the money, he testified. And Murdaugh never mentioned a $5 million umbrella policy that he had in addition to a policy for a smaller amount.
In June 2021, Michael Satterfield testified, his family heard their case was settled but Murdaugh did not disclose that he had collected on two settlements – one for more than $500,000 and another for $3.8 million.
“Did he get your permission to steal your money?” Waters asked.
“Did you ever get one cent from Alex Murdaugh?” Waters asked later.
In December 2021, an attorney for the Satterfield family said Murdaugh agreed to a $4.3 million settlement with the family. He also issued an apology to the Satterfields.
The first witness called Friday, also outside the jury’s presence, was Jan Malinowski, president and CEO of Palmetto State Bank. Palmetto’s former president, Russell Laffitte, was convicted of six counts of financial fraud crimes in November.
Malinowski, who testified at Laffitte’s trial, told the court that Murdaugh’s mounting debt to the bank was regularly covered, without justification, by loans from Laffite.
In August 2021, two months after the murders, Murdaugh’s account had an overdraft of more than $350,000, Malinowski testified. Laffitte responded with a $400,000 transfer to the defendant’s account.
Murdaugh at the time owed the bank more than $4 million, Malinowski testified.
Would the loans have kept coming had the bank known “that Murdaugh had been stealing money from his partners or … his clients?” asked Creighton Waters, a prosecutor with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office – which is prosecuting the case because of the Murdaugh family’s long ties with the local solicitor’s office.
“No sir,” the CEO replied.
Waters, eliciting laughter in the courtroom, said the bank had “perhaps the most generous overdraft policy ever seen.”
“Quite possibly,” Malinowski replied with a slight smile.
Prosecutors, in pretrial filings, accuse Murdaugh of killing his wife, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, and his 22-year-old son Paul Murdaugh to distract attention from alleged financial crimes, which the state contends were about to come to light when they were killed on June 7, 2021.
In addition to the murder counts, he faces 99 charges related to those purported schemes.
A pretrial motion from the state contended “the murders served as Murdaugh’s means to shift the focus away from himself and buy some additional time to try and prevent his financial crimes from being uncovered, which, if revealed, would have resulted in personal legal and financial ruin for Murdaugh.”
The defense has fought the admissibility of the evidence in the murder case, asserting the fraud cases are irrelevant to the question of Murdaugh’s guilt in the murders of his wife and son.
Murdaugh, who was disbarred amid a mountain of allegations of white-collar theft and fraud, faces 99 charges stemming from 19 grand jury indictments, including allegedly defrauding his clients and former law firm of nearly $9 million, according to the attorney general’s office.
Under each case, Murdaugh faces the possibility of two sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
On Thursday, the chief financial officer of Murdaugh’s former law firm testified about confronting the now-disbarred attorney about missing funds the morning his wife and son were killed.
Jeanne Seckinger, CFO of the firm formerly known as PMPED, testified outside the jury’s presence.
The morning of the murders, Seckinger confronted Murdaugh about $792,000 in missing funds, she said Thursday, testifying that legal fees should have been made payable to the law firm – renamed to Parker Law Group after Murdaugh’s ouster – and not to individual attorneys.
But Seckinger and other members of the firm realized in May 2021 they had not received a fee check stemming from a settlement signed in a case Murdaugh shared with another attorney, Seckinger testified, which was a concern.
At the time, Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit from the family of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who was killed in February 2019 when a boat, owned by Murdaugh and allegedly driven by Paul, struck a bridge piling.
Murdaugh’s financial records – which state court filings said “would expose (Murdaugh) for his years of alleged misdeeds” – could have been disclosed following a hearing in the civil case scheduled for June 10, 2021, three days after the killings.
But the June 10 hearing was canceled after Maggie and Paul’s deaths, Seckinger said Thursday, and the firm opted not to confront Murdaugh about the missing money.
Eventually, the firm did confront Murdaugh about the missing money and “it was my understanding that Alex admitted it,” Seckinger testified.
Before the firm could announce Murdaugh’s resignation, however, Seckinger testified she heard Murdaugh had been shot while on the side of the road. Murdaugh later told authorities he conspired with a former client to kill him as part of an insurance fraud scheme, purportedly so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance payout.
Finally, the court on Friday heard from a ballistics expert who told the court the .300 Blackout rifle cartridge casings found near Maggie’s body had identical markings to older casings found near the Murdaugh home as well as at a shooting range on their property.
The older casings found near the house and in the shooting range “had those same matching mechanism marks to conclude they’d been loaded into, extracted and ejected from the same firearm as those at the crime scene around Margaret Murdaugh’s body,” Paul Greer, a firearm examiner with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, testified.
The prosecution has said Maggie was killed with a .300 Blackout AR-15 rifle that was a “family weapon” but the weapon has yet to be found.
During cross-examination by the defense on Friday, Greer said it is “hard to say” whether different .300 Blackout rifles could create the same markings on casings – but reaffirmed he was confident in his findings.
Greer test fired one .300 Blackout rifle found in the gun room on the Murdaugh property and said the results were inconclusive on whether its ejected casings were an exact match with the casings found around Maggie’s body – but he said if the casings were not from that exact weapon, they came from one identical to it.
Prosecutors have also said the Murdaughs owned other AR-style rifles, including one Murdaugh bought his son to replace another that went missing. The prosecution has said the replacement is “nowhere to be found.”
Greer had similar testimony when the defense asked if Paul was killed with the camouflage-patterned gun Alex Murdaugh had on him when first responders arrived at the crime scene. The expert said he test fired that gun and the results were inconclusive. Greer testified he could not tell whether the casings were a match, but that it was possible the gun – or a weapon with similar characteristics – killed Paul.