SC jurors decided Laffitte verdict after nearly 11 hours of deliberation. But there was drama

Former Palmetto State Bank CEO Russell Laffitte walks to the Charleston federal courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

Former South Carolina banker Russell Laffitte was found guilty on all six counts of federal financial-related fraud charges after nearly 11 hours of deliberation.

But the ultimate unanimous verdict from the jury of seven men and five women did not come without some drama, after two jurors at the last minute were sent home and two of three alternates were picked by Judge Richard Gergel to sit in their place.

The trial played out over three weeks, as lawyers for the government and defense introduced more than 300 exhibits to the jury from spreadsheets, canceled checks, charts and bank statements.

Laffitte, 51, was found guilty on six charges: one count alleging that he conspired with Alex Murdaugh to commit numerous acts of bank and wire fraud; one count of bank fraud; one count of wire fraud; and three counts of misapplication of bank funds, which said he illegally misappropriated more than $1.8 million in bank money on Murdaugh’s behalf.

The former banker is the first person convicted of a crime related to the ongoing Murdaugh saga. Murdaugh also faces numerous financial-related charges and charges in the murders of his wife and son in June 2021.

Only twice did jurors emerge from their deliberation room Tuesday, at one point to ask that the court provide them with a transcript of Laffitte’s five hours of testimony for their review, and again to hear a 10-minute recording previously played in the trial.

Gergel only allowed jurors to hear the short recording, saying a transcript of Laffitte’s full testimony, which concluded the day before, was not yet available. But the judge offered to have the court reporter read back any specific testimony the jury requested, although the jurors never did.

But after nine hours of deliberation, around 8 p.m. Tuesday, the jury had a problem.

First, one juror sent Gergel a note that mentioned a scheduling conflict and feeling pressure to change their vote. Then more notes followed, this time about a “hostile” juror who was refusing to engage in deliberations and was refusing to follow some of the judge’s instructions, resulting in a private meeting with Gergel.

The various concerns were serious, Gergel said.

“We don’t allow people to serve on juries who don’t follow the court’s instructions,” he said.

Eventually, after meeting separately with the two jurors, Gergel announced he had excused both: one who needed to take an antibiotic and another who said they had been suffering from anxiety and could no longer function as a juror.

The “hostile” juror situation had also been resolved, Gergel said, without going into detail.

“We’re in virgin territory,” Gergel said Tuesday. “I’ve tried 100 cases myself and I’ve been on the bench for 13 years. And I’ve never seen anything like this.”

About 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the jury — this time with two of three alternates — went back to deliberating.

Once the juror change was made, the jury reached a verdict in less than an hour.

Back in court, Laffitte’s defense team raised an objection to one of the juror replacements, but Gergel said he felt he had no choice as that juror indicated she was unable to continue.

”She was shaking as she talked” and clearly unable to function as a juror, Gergel said.

Gergel said he talked to the two dismissed jurors with a court reporter and his deputy, and had a solid record about why he made his decision.

Asked after the verdict whether there were any doubts of a guilty verdict, lead prosecutor Emily Limehouse said, “of course.”

“But we’re glad they came back with the verdict that we believe the evidence demanded, which was guilty on all counts,” she told reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday night.

Defense lawyers and Laffitte, who left the courthouse with his family, did not make any additional comments after the verdict. The defense is likely to appeal.

Laffitte will remain free on bond until sentencing, which has not been scheduled.

Limehouse told reporters that the government did not have sentencing recommendations at this time.