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Murdaugh set to go before judge next month in fatal Beaufort Co. boat crash

Twenty-year-old Paul Murdaugh, a member of a powerful and influential South Carolina family that includes a former 14th Circuit solicitor, has not been arrested after being charged with three felony counts last week in the February boat crash that killed teen Mallory Beach.

He is also not having a preliminary hearing, which is where the evidence against him would have been outlined for the public and where his attorneys could have made arguments in his defense prior to indictment.

Murdaugh will first appear before Judge Steven John on May 6, said Robert Kittle, spokesman for the office of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, which is prosecuting the case. The public hearing will be held at 11:30 a.m.

It will be up to the judge in his case whether Murdaugh gets detained, said Kittle.

John, of the 15th Judicial Circuit serving the Myrtle Beach area, does not typically preside over cases in Beaufort County.

Assistant Attorney General Megan Burchstead is listed as a prosecutor for the case, according to online court records.

Beach, 19, of Hampton was ejected from the 17-foot boat Murdaugh is accused of driving when it crashed into a bridge near Parris Island on Feb. 24. Her body was found a week later in a marshy area about five miles from the accident.

The five surviving passengers in the boat, including Murdaugh, were injured, according to police reports. Law enforcement officers at the scene also noted that all five appeared to be “grossly intoxicated.”

On April 18, what would have been Beach’s 20th birthday, a Beaufort County grand jury directly indicted Murdaugh on one count of boating under the influence causing death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury.

Wilson’s office decided to prosecute the case after current 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone’s office recused itself the day after the crash. Three of the occupants of the boat, including Murdaugh, are related to current solicitor’s office employees.

Two judges in the 14th Judicial Circuit, Judge Perry Buckner and Judge Carmen T. Mullen, recused themselves earlier this month from a civil wrongful death case filed by Beach’s mom, Renee Beach.

Kittle said these recusals apply to the criminal case as well.

From 1920 to 2006, three generations of Murdaughs have held the elected position of solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.

Randolph Murdaugh III served as solicitor from 1986 to 2006 and is now a contract employee with the solicitor’s office, according to solicitor’s office spokesperson Jeff Kidd.

Paul Murdaugh’s father, Alexander Murdaugh, is a prominent Hampton County attorney. He also assists with cases in the solicitor’s office but is not a paid employee, Kidd said.

At the scene of the crash, Paul Murdaugh was not offered a sobriety test.

He was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officers say Randolph and Alexander Murdaugh blocked investigators from questioning him and another boater who had been identified as a possible driver, agency officials later said.

The elder Murdaughs also told investigators that neither Paul Murdaugh nor the other boater would submit to sobriety tests, DNR officials have said.

Kittle said the Attorney General’s office tends to handle cases brought to them by SCDNR and other state agencies differently.

There are two procedures used by the office when filing charges, he said.

“Warrant or indictment,” Kittle said. “With a warrant, law enforcement arrests someone, they are booked, have a preliminary hearing. Then they still need to be indicted.”

Wilson’s office typically receives a report from agencies they work with and then gives an opinion on attaining a warrant or going straight to the grand jury for indictment, Kittle said. Going to the grand jury directly bypasses the warrant, arrest and preliminary hearing process.

“That is often the way it happens in our office,” Kittle said. “We just go straight to the grand jury and indictment. Most of our cases, these are state agencies that come to us and the investigation is way further along in the process. We can say, ‘Yeah, there is enough to go straight to the grand jury.’”

Typically, individuals directly indicted are not arrested ahead of their first scheduled court hearing, Kittle said.

The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reached out to several attorneys to ask about the direct true bill indictment process. None of the attorneys working in the 14th circuit who were contacted were willing to speak on the record.

Greg McCollum, of Greg McCollum Complete Legal Defense Team, and Laura Hiller, with Axelrod & Associates, each said in separate conversations that the direct indictment procedure is commonly used by the Attorney General’s Office.

They also both said it is typical for the person indicted not to be apprehended prior to the first court appearance.

“It is more civilized to do it with a direct indictment,” McCollum said. “In this case, whatever happened, already happened. They are known to the police. They are not fleeing. They are not going around trying to destroy evidence. There is no reason to arrest them and bring them to the grand jury. They will allow them to present themselves.”

Bother McCollum and Hiller said they have worked on direct true bill indictment cases in the past.

“I have had clients who had no pull of any sort that went through that type of process,” Hiller said.

For the BUI charges causing great bodily injury, Murdaugh faces up to 15 years in prison with a minimum sentence of 30 days for each count. For the fatal BUI charge, Murdaugh faces up to 25 years in prison with a minimum sentence of one year, according to South Carolina law.

More than 500 people attended a March 7 funeral for Beach who is remembered for always being kind, a Christian and a lover of animals.

On May 11, the Beaufort community will hold a First Responders Appreciation Day in honor of Mallory Beach with proceeds benefiting the Hampton County Animal Shelter. The event will be held at Beaufort Town Center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“All proceeds will be donated to the Mallory Beach Memorial Fund, “Mal’s Pals,” to contribute to the process of building a brand new and improved animal shelter in Hampton!” Malllory’s sister, Savannah Beach Tuten, wrote on Facebook.

The Case

SCDNR came under scrutiny after it was revealed no sobriety tests were given to any boaters, who all were underage. The five remaining boaters appeared to be “grossly intoxicated, a Port Royal Police report states.

Because of miscommunication from 911 dispatchers, fire and EMS officials response time was delayed and they first arrived on the scene 28 minutes after the 911 call came in.

Alcohol was found on the boat, but none of the boaters were offered a sobriety test, McCullough previously said.

McCullough said last week that he can’t speak about whether blood from Murdaugh was taken by hospital staff the night of the crash. He also wouldn’t say whether any blood has been subpoenaed in the case.

On March 29, Renee Beach filed a lawsuit against former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, his son Alexander Murdaugh, and his grandson Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr.

The lawsuit provides alleged details for important events leading up to the crash.

The recently filed wrongful death lawsuit also includes claims against Luther’s Rare & Well Done on Bay Street in Beaufort, Parker’s 55 convenience store in Ridgeland, and homeowners Kristy and James Wood, alleging all three provided or sold alcoholic beverages to the six boaters, who were between the ages of 18 and 20.

The Hampton County suit alleges that Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. allowed his younger brother — who is not named in the lawsuit— to use his driver’s license to purchase alcohol at Parker’s. After purchasing the alcohol, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr.’s brother (Paul) shared the alcohol with Beach and the other four people under the age of 21, according to the lawsuit. The group then consumed alcohol on Randolph Murdaugh’s property, referred to in the lawsuit as “The Island.”

“The Island” is property located on Chechessee Creek that is an asset of the Murdaugh Trust 2, which Randolph Murdaugh is a trustee of, Mark Tinsley, Renee Beach’s attorney said.

He said the boaters launched from “The Island” on the evening of Feb. 23.

The lawsuit accuses Randolph Murdaugh of allowing underage drinkers to consume alcohol on his property and allowing them to leave in an “intoxicated state.”

It also said the group drank alcohol that was “available for consumption” on “The Island” and “(Randolph Murdaugh) undertook a duty to supervise minors’ consumption of alcohol so as to not allow them to unnecessarily endanger themselves or others, including Mallory Beach,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses Alexander Murdaugh of “failing to supervise his son when he knew or should have known his son was illegally using a license to buy and consume alcohol.”

On March 25, the Sheriff’s Office emailed the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, asking to be recused from assisting DNR in its investigation into where the group of underage Hampton County boaters at the scene had obtained alcohol before the Feb. 24 crash, according to Maj. Bob Bromage, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

No other charges have been filed in the case.

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