SC judge denies request to stay Murdaugh wrongful death suit until after murder trial

·6 min read

A South Carolina judge has denied a request to stay a wrongful death suit until after the Murdaugh family murder trial is completed.

On Wednesday, ruling from Spartanburg County, Judge Daniel DeWitt Hall denied an Aug. 5 motion filed in Hampton County by attorneys for disbarred and jailed attorney Richard “Alex” Murdaugh. The motion sought to “stay discovery and continue trial” in the wrongful death suit filed by Renee Beach in the death of her daughter, Mallory, following a February 2019 boat crash involving Murdaugh’s boat and allegedly intoxicated underaged son.

The fatal 2019 Murdaugh boat crash continues to have major implications, including a possible impact on the pending Murdaugh family murder trial.
The fatal 2019 Murdaugh boat crash continues to have major implications, including a possible impact on the pending Murdaugh family murder trial.

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Faced with 11 ongoing civil suits, Murdaugh must also defend himself on 88 criminal charges, including two counts of murder in June 7, 2021, shooting deaths of his wife, Maggie, and younger son, Paul, in Colleton County.

The recent motion seeks to not only stay the discovery of evidence in this particular civil suit but also "continue the trial of this case until after the final disposition of pending criminal charges of two counts of murder and two counts of possessing a weapon during a violent crime,” charges which Murdaugh was indicted on July 14, 2022.

Mark Tinsley, attorney for Renee Beach and the Estate of Mallory Beach, told The Hampton County Guardian Wednesday that Judge Hall issued a ruling the same day denying the motion to stay and continue the case, but the trial will likely have a short delay anyway.

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The wrongful death civil case will likely not begin on Oct. 3 as originally expected but may proceed as early as the November term of Hampton County Common Pleas Court, say, attorneys, partially because of the recent death of one of Murdaugh’s defense attorneys, John Tiller. A replacement for Tiller may not have time to prepare for the case by October.

According to the motion to stay, which was filed by Murdaugh attorneys Richard Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, the double murder trial for Murdaugh is expected to begin in January 2023 in Colleton County General Sessions Court. However, Robert Kittle, spokesperson for the SC Attorney General’s Office, said the AG doesn’t have an official trial date yet.

Alex Murdaugh entering a Colleton County courtroom in July.
Alex Murdaugh entering a Colleton County courtroom in July.

Murdaugh’s argument

With Murdaugh in such a legal quagmire, his attorneys say that allowing the civil suit to proceed while the criminal case is pending “will substantially affect Alex Murdaugh’s rights to a fair trial and due process of law as guaranteed by the United States and South Carolina Constitutions.” Furthermore, Murdaugh will be forced to either take the Fifth Amendment in the civil suit, which could hinder his defense in that case, or waive that right, which could produce information that may jeopardize the defense of the criminal case.

Specifically, the motion contends that Murdaugh’s relationship with his son, Paul, is central to plaintiff claims in the wrongful death suit and any testimony or information Murdaugh provides may be used against him in the trial for the murder of that son.

The motion also claims that if the boat crash civil suit is not continued, Murdaugh will not have time to adequately prepare for his upcoming murder trial.

Finally, the motion claims that, with the “unprecedented publicity in local, state, national and international media… If this case proceeds to trial before the murder case, the effect on a jury in this case from the glaring media spotlight will be difficult to assess. There will certainly be a significant risk that Murdaugh’s notoriety, and the media’s presence in the courtroom, will hinder the jury’s ability to give equal attention to all parties to this lawsuit and fairly weigh the evidence presented in the trial. Lastly, one cannot overstate the impact that a televised trial, in this case, conducted on the eve of Murdaugh’s murder trial, will have on potential jurors in the murder trial, making it even more difficult to select a jury from within the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit.”

Mallory Beach
Mallory Beach

The Beach family’s argument

On Aug. 10, Tinsley, on behalf of the Beach clients, filed a memo in opposition to the Aug. 5 motion to stay and continue.

“Despite the hype that Defendant Murdaugh is attempting to spew concerning his purported constitutional rights, it is the law of the land that a criminal defendant like Alex Murdaugh has no absolute constitutional right to a stay of a related civil case, much less one that is only tangentially related at best, even in the face of concerns over the impact the civil matter might have on his assertion of a Fifth Amendment privilege,” wrote Tinsley and his co-counsel, Tabor Vaux.

Tinsley added that this is true even where the motion to stay is based on a “parallel” proceeding involving the same subject matter, which is not the case here:

“This civil action involves allegations of negligence against Defendant Murdaugh in causing or contributing to cause the death of Mallory Beach in a boat crash in February of 2019. The murder charges against Defendant Murdaugh involve allegations that he slaughtered his wife and son in June of 2021. These are clearly not parallel proceedings and do not involve the same subject matter.”

The Beach family attorneys contend that South Carolina courts have directly dealt with the issue of parallel civil and criminal cases, finding no constitutional violation when the civil case was not stayed during criminal proceedings and cited numerous case examples.

Prior to the judge’s ruling, Tinsley and Vaux issued a statement to the public on behalf of the family of Mallory Beach:

“Denying this motion to stay will promote the interests of the entire citizen base of the state of South Carolina as well as the entire justice system. The dark cloud created by this saga that hangs over the heads of lawyers and judges in this state must be eradicated in order to rebuild the trust of the public in our judicial system. The only way to move forward is to hold Alex Murdaugh accountable to the same rules that apply to the general public. The notoriety that he has created for himself through his own actions cannot serve as a basis for granting him a stay in this civil case. In fact, granting him a stay, in this case, will only further tarnish the reputation of our state’s judicial system. This alone requires a denial of his motion to stay.

“The Beach family lost their daughter in February of 2019. They have endured this grueling litigation for over three years suffering countless attacks from multiple sources. It is simply too much, yet Alex Murdaugh desires to prolong their suffering and torture by utilizing this delay tactic that is designed to avoid the public from seeing the real facts in this case. Any burden on Alex Murdaugh is of his own making, while the Beach family are innocent victims who deserve justice and who desire their day in court. The judicial system likewise desperately needs this case to proceed to trial to show the world that the judicial system in South Carolina protects everyone and all that it stands for is not lost because of who is involved in the proceeding.”

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: SC Judge denies request to stay Murdaugh wrongful death suit