By Dianne Gallagher, CNN
(CNN) — For the first time, Alex Murdaugh has pleaded guilty to crimes.
The disgraced former South Carolina attorney, who was convicted in March of murdering his wife and son, pleaded guilty to nearly two dozen fraud and money laundering charges Thursday morning in a federal courtroom in Charleston.
The plea is related to a scheme in which Murdaugh and a bank employee allegedly defrauded his personal injury clients and laundered more than $7 million of funds, according to an indictment. Murdaugh was accused of using the settlement funds for his “personal benefit, including using the proceeds to pay off personal loans and for personal expenses and cash withdrawals.”
Murdaugh cried as he told the judge he was pleading guilty of his own free will. He said he was doing so because he was guilty of the crimes, but also so his son, Buster, could see him taking responsibility for his actions, as well as to help his victims heal, according to three attorneys present during the proceedings.
Murdaugh agreed to plead guilty to 22 charges in all: one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud; one count of bank fraud; five counts of wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; and 14 counts of money laundering.
The majority of the charges carry a maximum federal sentence of 20 years, though four of the charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years.
US District Court Judge Richard Gergel accepted and signed the plea agreement between Murdaugh and federal prosecutors. Gergel will determine federal sentencing for Murdaugh at a later date.
“Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes were extensive, brazen, and callous,” US Attorney Adair F. Boroughs said in a statement. “He stole indiscriminately from his clients, from his law firm, and from others who trusted him. The US Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and SLED committed to investigating and prosecuting Murdaugh’s financial crimes when they first came to light. Today marks our fulfillment of that promise.”
What the plea agreement says
The agreement says that if Murdaugh cooperates and complies with the conditions of the plea agreement, the government attorneys agree to recommend to the court that any federal sentence he receives for these charges “be served concurrent to any state sentence served for the same conduct.” The agreement does not have a sentence recommendation included in it, as written.
Notably, the agreement requires Murdaugh – who admitted under oath that he had previously lied to the police – to tell the truth.
“The Defendant agrees to be fully truthful and forthright with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies by providing full, complete and truthful information about all criminal activities about which he/she has knowledge,” the agreement reads.
If he is found in any way to break this portion of the agreement, the agreement would be voided.
Much of the agreement is focused on Murdaugh working with the government to repay victims and locate missing assets. The agreement says Murdaugh must pay restitution to his victims and requests he forfeit a total of $9 million in assets. Further, he must submit to a polygraph test, if requested by the government, and could be called to testify before other grand juries or in future trials.
Attorney Justin Bamberg, who represents several of Murdaugh’s victims in the financial crimes, criticized the plea agreement in a statement.
“Given the severity and callousness of his crimes, Alex Murdaugh should never receive any incentive-based deal from the government, be it federal or state, and we respectfully disagree with the federal government’s voluntary decision to concede to a concurrent sentence in exchange for his guilty plea and agreement to ‘cooperate,’” he said.
“We trust that the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office will remain steadfast in its commitment to hold Murdaugh accountable and will give him no breaks and offer no incentives; that ship sailed years ago,” he added. “Murdaugh’s victims are looking forward to seeing him receive the individual sentences he earned via his own individual criminal conduct towards each of them under South Carolina law.”
Bigger legal challenges ahead
The fraud charges are just the latest legal problems for Murdaugh, the scion of a prominent and powerful family of local lawyers and solicitors in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
Murdaugh was convicted in March of murdering his wife Maggie and son Paul in 2021 at their sprawling estate, and he was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Days after his conviction, Murdaugh’s lawyers began the appeals process. However, earlier this month, his defense team filed a court motion to suspend the appeal, so they could request a new trial. The motion included bombshell allegations that the Colleton County Clerk of Court tampered with the jury.
The South Carolina attorney general has asked the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to investigate the claims.
Last week, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the court to order Murdaugh’s defense team to correct their motion due to several “procedural defects.” The prosecutor’s office didn’t directly dispute the motion but noted the ongoing investigation has already “revealed significant factual disputes” that undermine the credibility of Murdaugh’s claims.
Murdaugh’s attorney’s responded to the state’s request on Thursday, accusing prosecutors of attempting to delay the appeal suspension and prevent the defense from requesting a new trial. The defense attorneys argued the “procedural defects” raised by prosecutors are not relevant to the filing and asked the court to “expeditiously grant” a new trial.
The South Carolina Court of Appeals has not yet issued a decision.
In addition, the disbarred attorney remains entangled in several other state and federal cases in which he faces more than 100 other charges.
Murdaugh is set to stand trial in November on charges related to stolen settlement funds from the family of the Murdaughs’ late housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.
They are the first of dozens of state charges he faces in alleged schemes to defraud victims of millions. The financial crimes he is accused of in the case include embezzlement, computer crime, money laundering and tax evasion.
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CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.