The State of South Carolina v. Richard Alexander Murdaugh murder trial that ended in March of this year raises important questions about how the wealthy and powerful are treated by the criminal justice system and how “white collar criminals” often face disparately less punishment than other offenders, despite the great harm their actions cause.
The salacious events culminating in the arrest of one of the most prominent members of the South Carolina legal community shone a light on much more than just the murders themselves. Murdaugh, who goes by his middle name, Alex, was found guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie and their 22-year-old son, Paul, on June 7, 2021. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
The murder investigation unleashed new interest in the death of Mallory Beach, a friend of Paul Murdaugh who died in a boat crash in which Paul was believed to be drunk at the helm. Details about the ensuing cover up, as well as Alex Murdaugh’s interference in the investigation, highlighted concerns about how the wealthy and powerful can abuse their status in the community to insulate themselves from criminal and civil culpability.
Nowhere was the incredible influence of the family’s wealth and power demonstrated more strongly than in the death of Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh’s long-time housekeeper. Her mysterious death, allegedly caused by a fall on the Murdaugh’s property, was also reopened. The revelation that Alex Murdaugh represented to her surviving sons that he would “sue himself” to obtain an insurance settlement for them, which he subsequently pocketed and never told them about, is a breach of trust few of us can fathom.
The death of Stephen Smith, who was found dead at age 19 on a rural road close to the Murdaugh property, has also been reopened based on evidence allegedly found during the recent murder investigations.
As the investigation into Maggie and Paul’s murders unfolded, it uncovered a mountain of evidence demonstrating Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes, in which he diverted client’s settlement monies to himself to the tune of an estimated $8 million. A landmark ruling in the case dubbed the “trial of the century” by the local media occurred when the judge ruled that the prosecution could use evidence of Murdaugh’s financial crimes as relevant to motive. Prosecution witnesses included those with personal knowledge of Murdaugh’s financial situation prior to the murders, including former clients who had been victimized by his schemes.
What is ‘White-Collar’ Crime
What does the term “white-collar crime” mean and is it really less dangerous or harmful than other types of crimes? The term “white-collar crime” was first defined in 1939 by sociologist Edwin Sutherland as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation.” Since then, the term has been used to describe a wide range of activities including corporate fraud, securities fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. While white-collar crimes are generally considered less severe because violence is not involved in the commission of criminal acts, these crimes can destroy businesses and cause people to lose their homes, jobs, and community resources.
Unfortunately, the financial crimes committed by Murdaugh are far from isolated incidents. Consider the Jack Abramoff scandal in which the perpetrator was sentenced to five years in 2006 for defrauding Native American tribes out of at least $45 million. Or former attorney Nathan E. Hardwick, IV, who was convicted in 2018 of stealing more than $26 million from his firm and client trust accounts which he used for gambling, private jets and “companions.” Hardwick received a 180-month sentence which was quickly appealed on the basis that the sentence was “substantively unreasonable.”
Then there’s Aimee Bock, who was arrested after allegedly conspiring with 46 others to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program out of more than $250 million, which was instead used for cars, vacations, and extravagant luxury items. She was released from custody without bail, and is currently awaiting trial.
Bernie Madoff, the famous orchestrater of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, which defrauded victims out of nearly $65 billion, did receive the maximum sentence of 150 years. His defense had argued that a seven-year sentence would be appropriate. He died in 2021 in a federal prison in Butner, NC.
Distinction Between Violent and Non-Violent Crime
The fbi.gov website reiterates that “white collar crime is generally non-violent in nature.” However, most experts in the field of sociology agree that the economic impact of white-collar crime is significantly greater than other types of crime. The sensational Murdaugh trial personalized white collar crime victims for the public in a way that has rarely been seen before, through direct media coverage of the trial as well as through a variety of television documentaries which interviewed victims and their families. This included family members of Gloria Satterfield, who Murdaugh exploited by secretly pocketing millions for himself that should have gone to Satterfield’s three children.
Although facing 100 other charges including theft, insurance fraud, and tax evasion, Murdaugh took the stand to testify in his own defense. Under cross-examination, Murdaugh admitted to stealing money from his clients and his former law firm, which was key in bolstering the prosecution’s theory about the motive and demonstrated Murdaugh’s callous disregard for the impact of his actions on the lives of others.
Unlike other classes of criminals, perpetrators of white-collar crime often retain access to assets allowing them to hire top-notch legal counsel, despite the fact that their crimes involve the theft of financial resources. This makes criminal prosecution more difficult and makes it harder for victims to pursue available civil remedies.
The use of a weapon in so-called “street crimes” can result in significantly harsher sentencing, even if no actual physical harm was involved. What this translates to is a perpetrator who brandishes a knife to steal a roll of quarters from a common area laundry room may face significantly more jail time than an executive who embezzles millions using a pen. Had it not been for the murder aspect of the Murdaugh case, it is unlikely that the financial crimes alone would have received this level of scrutiny and media attention.
White-collar crime is more difficult to detect than other crimes. It is estimated that up to 90% of such crimes go unreported. In 2022, there were only 4,180 white collar crime prosecutions, over 50% less than the number of prosecutions that occurred 10 years ago, despite no correlating decrease in the crimes themselves. When offenders are caught, most don’t have a criminal record and are labeled “first time offenders,” giving them preferential treatment in sentencing, even though the nature of these crimes are complex, involve extensive planning and require multiple illegal steps in order to execute the crime.
A recent U.S. Sentencing Commission report found that Black men in America receive a 19.1% longer sentence than White men for similar crimes. Still, this ignores the fundamental issue that white-collar crimes are statistically more likely to be committed by White males ages 41-60 than any other demographic, and the disparate criminal consequences for these types of crimes, as compared to other offenses, is a source of racial injustice in and of itself.
In the U.S., the average prison sentence for white-collar crimes is only 23-27 months while armed robbery is a felony which typically receives a sentence of at least 10 years, with more time if a gun was used or the perpetrator has prior convictions. Statistics indicate that white-collar crime costs victims over $400 billion per year, while “street crimes” like burglary, larceny and theft cost victims around $16 billion a year. The paradox lies in the fact that street crimes are often borne out of poverty and necessity, while white-collar crimes are often a product of unrestrained greed fueled by a lack of fear of consequences.
While little research has been dedicated to the study of white-collar crime offenders, the data that does exist indicates that our society’s treatment of white-collar crime highlights and perpetuates gender and racial discrimination. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School determined that male senior executives were punished more leniently for white-collar crime offenses than female senior perpetrators. Other studies have determined that prosecutions are directed toward lower-level or small-time offenders, while higher-ranking culprits are not prosecuted. Even decisions about who to charge with the offense seem to be affected by the wealth and power of the offender, potentially because an offender’s access to money and influence presents significant challenges on the road to justice.
The intersection between psychiatry, psychology, and the law is a complex one, but an area often explored in criminal profiling for violent crimes and in making sentencing recommendations for violent or drug-related offenses. There has been very little research conducted in the forensic psychology or psychiatry field with respect to white-collar criminal offenders. Interestingly, white collar offenders seem to share the same malignant personality traits as offenders labeled violent or more dangerous.
The fbi.gov website page about Serial Murder lists “sensation seeking, a lack of guilt or remorse, impulsivity, the need for control and predatory behavior” as personality traits correlated with psychopathic personality disorder, a predictive behavioral indicator for serial murder. These same traits are evident in the Murdaugh case as well as in many of the white-collar crime cases where perpetrators have conned private individuals or committed frauds involving the misappropriation of public resources on a large scale.
The True Cost
There are also significant misconceptions about the actual costs of white-collar crimes to society and others and who ends up paying the price. With the growing true-crime obsession, people see tangible images of gruesome murder scenes and graphic injuries flashed across the television screen. There are no corresponding mental pictures for the losses white-collar crime causes – less money for public resources such as schools and infrastructure, increased healthcare costs, and diversion of essential resources away from those who need it the most, costs that are then passed on to taxpayers and not borne by the individuals or business that created the damage.
In contrast to the portrayal of violent crime, white-collar crime is often portrayed as glamorous, like in the popular TV series “White Collar” where a con artist turns FBI informant in a last-ditch effort to start a new life. Even the more recent series “Ozark,” which chronicles the lives of a married couple who move their family to the Ozarks and become money launderers, leads us to justify the crimes and moves us to root for the anti-hero. The show also illustrates, however, the dangerous link between white-collar crime and other criminal enterprises like dealing drugs and gambling. On September 10, 2022, the New York Post released an article headlined “Latest twists in Murdaugh murder mystery: ‘More like ‘Ozark’ every day,” after two other arrests were linked to Murdaugh’s alleged drug and money laundering ring.
In calculating the damage caused by white-collar crimes, we must ask ourselves, what price are we putting on the struggle for businesses and communities to economically rebuild or the psychological damage to victims? How do we measure the damage to someone’s soul or their loss of faith in humanity, especially if the crime resulted in the loss of their possessions or eviction from their home?
The difficulty with assessing an appropriate punishment is that the damages caused by these crimes are simply immeasurable. Another uncomfortable question we as a society must consider is whether the greed of a white-collar criminal is more or less dangerous than that of a shoplifter or a robber, and if so, why does our justice system treat them so differently?
The Murdaugh case does more than just call attention to the need for our society to reevaluate how we punish white-collar offenders. The Murdaugh case seems to disprove the myth on which the sentencing disparity was based – that there is no link between white collar crime and violent crime. While the accepted rationale has been that other crimes are punished more harshly because violence was used in the commission of the crimes, the Murdaugh case demonstrates that white-collar criminals are highly motivated to engage in violence to cover up their crimes to prevent exposure to law enforcement and the public.
The fact that such criminals often possess the money, resources and intelligence to do so without detection makes this genre of crime a more serious threat to society than the general public has previously considered.