Liz Farrell

No cuffs. No jumpsuit. No jail. Paul Murdaugh gets a gentleman’s treatment in SC court

Someone did not get the memo on how things “normally” proceed at the Beaufort County Courthouse.

That person would be the detention center guard, who on Monday — after Judge Steven John set Paul Murdaugh’s bond at $50,000 — mistakenly took that as a cue to do his job and came jingle-jangling over to young Murdaugh to cuff him and take him to jail, where, ostensibly, Murdaugh would have been booked, processed and released like all the non-Murdaughs are after they’ve been charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence in a fatal boat crash.

The guard walked up to Murdaugh with the assuredness of someone who has done this many times before ... almost, dare I say, “routinely.”

Murdaugh, who is 20, regarded the man with the type of assessment you might give a cater waiter who has a raging case of pink eye but is still offering you a canape off his tray.

Actually, that’s not a good characterization.

Murdaugh’s expression was more like, “Handcuffs? No, no. There’s been some sort of mix-up. I’m not here to be arrested. I’m here to be ‘arrested.’ Like the summer intern version of arrested.”

For a moment, he appeared to be terrified that life was about to break a certain way for him, that several generations of the history, wealth, influence and power baked into his DNA were about to crumble away and expose the gooey, undercooked, terrible-tasting middle.

But fear not, all he had to do was wait four more seconds.

That’s when South Carolina Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Megan Burchstead — who works for you, by the way, and who never once said the name “Mallory Beach” out loud nor made any solid subject-verb request on behalf of the state when it came to Murdaugh’s bond, though she did hint that his potential alcohol consumption might be a “concern” for society — came through for the child and shooed away the overzealous guard.

Can you imagine the thought of getting handcuffed when you’re arrested?

Yes, you can.

Despite those repeated reassurances from the Attorney General’s Office, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Murdaugh’s plumed attorney, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, that everything you’ve been seeing in this case is “normal,” “typical” and simply how the system works for anyone who has been directly indicted, you can actually see through that.

If this were you or your adult-ish kid, the process would likely look a lot different.

For example, let’s consider Murdaugh’s mugshot.

It took more than five hours and several phone calls from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Monday for the very people who should have been able to quickly answer the question, “Where is it?” — who should have been able to quickly produce it given that, as we found out, Murdaugh’s mugshot was taken on someone’s iPhone 7 Plus in the hallway of the courthouse — to release what turned out to be not so much a “mugshot,” at least as we’ve come to know them, but a picture of J. Crew’s employee of the month for May.

Wait, wait. Murdaugh took off his blazer for his mugshot.

I guess such attire is too formal for the occasion?

What does one wear to an inmate intake photo shoot, anyway?

Something in traffic cone orange perhaps? With a little V-neck to it? Like a hospital uniform, but for “bad orderlies”?

Actually, yes. That is exactly what you wear in Beaufort County at an inmate intake photo shoot.

Whether you’ve been arrested for eating someone’s kidneys with fava beans and a nice chianti or you were picked up for “walking on the road” (not a joke, this happens), your mugshot — or your adult-ish child’s mugshot — would immediately be distributed to the public on the Beaufort County Inmate Inquiry System, along with your address, birth date, height and weight.

Your weight!

Here’s what else would likely happen to you: Well, first, your friends, neighbors and co-workers would be texting the heck out of that photo for days after your arrest. Also, this image of you would become the one that gets shown repeatedly by the media. It’ll probably be posted on Facebook and Twitter. And, even if your alleged crime didn’t rise to the level of “news,” this photo of you in an orange jumpsuit could be associated with your name in a Google search for a long time to come and affect potential job opportunities, housing applications and relationships.

Another element of the justice system that might look different for you or your adult-ish kid: the indictments, or the charging documents.

They would likely contain information — maybe just a little, maybe a lot — about why the state thinks it is justified in prosecuting you for said crime.

The details in those documents are sometimes descriptive and could be rather embarrassing for you.

But it is part of the process in a system that relies on transparency and accountability.

A system that is meant to keep the state honest, protect victims’ rights and maintain the integrity of due process.

A system that is meant to be fair at its best and challenged at its worst.

Murdaugh’s charging documents pretty much just say he’s been indicted.

They have all the depth and specificity of a sixth-grade book report in which the writer repeats the book’s title throughout as a strategy to take up page space, thinking it might keep the teacher off his back.

Why is this?

Because the prosecution chose to do it this way.

Sometimes they include the details, sometimes they don’t.

With this particular defendant they kept it brief.

On Monday, Murdaugh pleaded not guilty to all charges.

His bond — remember, it’s not supposed to be a punishment but rather an assessment of a defendant’s likelihood to show up for trial and not be a menace to society as he awaits that date — seems fair enough.

His attorneys said it themselves: “There is no risk that Paul will flee. Paul’s family ties to this State run deep. Paul does not know a life beyond this State. There is nowhere for him to go.”

I fully believe that.

There is not a single environment on Earth that will be as hospitable to a Murdaugh as the 14th Judicial Circuit in South Carolina has been.

In fact, that is why the state AG’s office is handling this case in the first place: to avoid any appearance of favoritism from local prosecutors who work with Murdaugh’s grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh III.

But that’s where the irony exists, right?

The same decision that was made in the name of not giving special treatment to Murdaugh is the very one that has put him in a seemingly cushy space apart from the rest of us where his treatment sure does come off as special, even if it’s legally sound.

In other words, because the AG’s office decided to directly indict him, Murdaugh avoided getting arrested upon being charged.

He avoided the pre-trial hearing at which the state would have presented some of the reasons it thinks it is prosecuting the right guy with the correct charges.

He avoided unseemly handcuffs and an embarrassing mugshot, one that would instantly mark him as “accused.”

He avoided stepping into a jail altogether.

The prosecution even brought a “wooden thing” with them to fingerprint him the old-fashioned way instead of taking him the short distance from the courthouse to the detention center, where all the appropriate and current technology exists.

Murdaugh’s experience getting processed “into the system” amounted to a gentleman’s agreement, hush-voiced and white-gloved.

And none of this is OK.

If there are upgrades to be had during the basic act of getting entered into the justice system after being accused of a crime, then make those upgrades available to everyone.

If there is a better door to walk through — one that takes you to a backroom where there’s good lighting and where mugshots look like yearbook photos — then let’s put a giant sign outside of it that points everyone that way.

Paul Murdaugh is presumed innocent.

So too are the rest of us.

Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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