By David Lauderdale
Want to start restoring confidence in the South Carolina system of justice? Disregard both banks of lawyers in the murder case against Alex Murdaugh and demand that the business of the court remain public, not gagged.
At a bond hearing July 20 in the historic Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, defense attorney Dick Harpootlian asked Judge Clifton Newman to seal all the evidence in the case.
“Further discussion of the alleged facts in this case we think continues to run the risk of polluting the jury pool,” Harpootlian said.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters of the South Carolina Attorney General’s office agreed with Harpootlian’s motion.
But at this point, you’d have to knock on the door of an igloo deeper in the wilds of Alaska than the Iditarod dogs can go to find anyone not already suffering from Murdaugh pollution.
Judge Newman denied bond for the 54-year-old disbarred attorney from Hampton County in the latest of scores of indictments against him – indictments that accuse him of killing his wife and son.
Murdaugh pleaded not guilty as a flank of reporters looked on, as did a portrait on the wall of his grandfather, who ruled all justice in this area for almost 50 years as the 14th Judicial Circuit solicitor.
The oil portrait helps explain why Judge Newman’s decision on this motion is so important.
The overriding question since Murdaugh’s now-deceased son was accused of driving a boat into a bridge piling three years ago, killing a young woman from Hampton County, is whether the so-called elites have a different justice system than the rest of us. It’s a question of whether the criminal justice system does more to protect its own than the rule of law.
A gag order in the murder case would only make that public doubt worse. The people have a right to know what authorities think happened on the night of June 7, 2021, when Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22, were found brutally shot at a family estate near Hampton.
Murdaugh’s lawyers have already unsuccessfully tried to block the public’s access to Murdaugh’s phone calls from the Richland County jail where he resides under a $7 million bond and a mountain of charges that allege he pilfered millions of dollars through his legal practice.
A judge shot down that attempt for secrecy.
Judge Newman needs to quash this latest move to shield the legal elites from public scrutiny. It’s encouraging that Newman immediately told the lawyers that the court is a public place where public matters are to remain public, not hidden.
He said he would consider the request.
“I just want it clearly understood it’s a public matter, a public trial. Matters that need to be sealed can be sealed. I want it clear we will not have any private motion hearings. Public matters will be public.”
South Carolina needs public matters to be public for everyone — equally. In fact, that is what is on trial here with Alex Murdaugh.
This column originally appeared in The State, The Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette and was shared through the S.C. Press Association’s News Exchange for use in SCPA member publications. David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.