Fleming sentenced, Murdaugh trial date set in Beaufort Co. court
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC/AP) - A judge has sentenced the former South Carolina attorney who pleaded guilty to state charges ranging from breach of trust with fraudulent intent, money laundering and criminal conspiracy.
Judge Clifton Newman sentenced Cory Fleming to a total of 13 years, 10 months in prison based on multiple individual indictments that carried possible penalties of between five and 20 years, according to South Carolina Attorney General’s Office spokesman Robert Kittle. The sentence was initially reported as 20 years, based on information provided from the office after Newman’s reading of sentences for numerous charges. His phrasing indicated that the sentences for one group of charges would be concurrent, meaning at the same time, while a separate sentence for one charge would be consecutive.
Kittle said when the Attorney General’s Office received the actual paperwork on the sentencing, they discovered one of the state sentences is 10 years consecutive to the federal sentence while the second 10-year sentence is concurrent to both the state and federal sentences.
“My heart bleeds for you because I have no doubt of the quality of human being that you are as reflected by all of the positive comments,” Newman said. “But you must suffer the consequences of your actions and these cases that you’re standing before me for.”
The charges stem from accusations that he conspired with disbarred Lowcountry attorney Alex Murdaugh to take money from a wrongful death settlement from the estate of Gloria Satterfield. Satterfield was Murdaugh’s longtime housekeeper who died after what was described as a “trip-and-fall” accident at Murdaugh’s home in February of 2018.
Members of Satterfield’s family spoke at the sentencing hearing along with those who supported Fleming and asked Newman to be merciful in handing down his sentence.
Fleming himself also addressed the court, telling Newman he had represented clients in the same courtroom where he now was to be sentenced to prison.
“I was very aware that one bad decision or a series of bad decisions can have life-changing, and irreversible consequences. Despite knowing this firsthand, I made some terrible decisions and broke the law,” Fleming said. “Today I offer this court no excuses. There are no excuses. I place the blame for my actions on my shoulders. Nobody else’s.”
He said he will spend the rest of his life regretting the shame he inflicted on his family.
Federal Judge Richard Gergel previously sentenced Fleming to 46-months, almost four years, on federal charges after Fleming pleaded guilty to them. But he said he would send a message to Newman that no more time behind bars should result from the state charges.
Lawyers representing the victims asked the judge for additional penalties to deter future deception from lawyers tempted to betray disadvantaged clients. State prosecutor Creighton Waters said Fleming “should not get buy-one-get-one-free” and sought consecutive state sentences. The state court needs to have a say, too, he said.
“To be a con man, it depends on trust. It depends on reputation. It depends on the inherent reliability of having a law license on your wall,” Waters said.
The defense said Fleming’s 29 years of upstanding legal work documented by other lawyers’ testimony should not be overshadowed by a “lapse in judgment.” The defense argued that two separate state and federal sentences for the same conduct would not be necessary.
Newman said he read multiple documents but did not read Gergel’s transcripts from Fleming’s federal trial and sentencing, saying he does not allow a federal judge to influence his sentencing. But he said in 47 years of practicing law, this is only the second time he has ever had to hand down a sentence against a lawyer, the first being Alex Murdaugh, who he sentenced to two life sentences for the June 2021 killings of Murdaugh’s wife and son.
“And now I have a lawyer, co-defendant colleague of his, facing 195 years in prison,” Newman said. “Certainly in the number of years being faced and the impact of the crimes on the citizens of the state, I cannot imagine anyone going to a lawyer in South Carolina at this moment in time and having complete trust and what that lawyer says to them.”
Attorney General Alan Wilson also released a statement, saying that in South Carolina, “no one is above the law.”
“We’re pleased with Cory Fleming’s sentencing and hope his victims feel a little relief today,” Wilson said. “Our office has worked tirelessly on this case, just like the rest of the Murdaugh-related cases, and we are committed to seeing each and every one through to the end.”
After the sentencing, attorney Eric Bland, who represented Satterfield’s estate, praised the sentence.
“Today justice was done and, you know, justice always isn’t pretty it always isn’t kind, but justice was done and we have a system that worked.”
Trial date set for Murdaugh financial crimes case
Newman also set the date for Murdaugh’s state trial for Nov. 27, which is the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Murdaugh faces more than 100 state financial crime charges.
Murdaugh previously agreed to plead guilty to federal charges he stole millions of dollars from clients, according to court records. That federal court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 21.
Murdaugh’s murder trial, which wrapped up in March, cast a shadow over the Thursday proceeding. Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian asked that the state trial wait until they finish litigating the federal case and the matter of jury tampering. He argued it would be difficult to get a fair trial within a year of the widely watched murder trial’s conclusion.
“To try to try this case in less than a year after the verdict came in in the other case...don’t we need to calm down a bit? Where are you going to get a jury? Mars?” Harpootlian said.
Newman, the same judge who presided over the nearly six-week murder trial earlier this year, said the indictments were issued across many counties home to people capable of serving on a jury. He said he would not presume that jurors could not be assembled.
Lead state prosecutor Creighton Waters argued the pending charges against Murdaugh remained a “top priority” and needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.
“We are in 2023, the reality media environment is what it is,” he said. “Unless we say that the judicial system can’t function because of publicity, that just leaves nothing left to happen. That is the reality we live in.”
Murdaugh has been indicted for taking $8.8 million in legal settlements from clients who were badly injured or the families of those killed on the job. Victims included the family housekeeper who died in a fall at the Murdaugh home. He is also accused of stealing nearly $7 million from his law firm over a nine-year period during which he made almost $14 million.
Other charges relate to an eight-year drug ring and money laundering scheme that prosecutors say involved $2.4 million in checks written to a friend who used some of the money on a painkiller distribution network.
He faces an additional nine counts of tax evasion for allegedly ducking just under $487,000 in state income taxes. Convictions would carry up to five years in prison for each count.
Judge delays setting trial date for Laffitte
Newman also presided over a status hearing for former Palmetto State Bank CEO Russell Laffitte and the 21 state charges he is facing.
Laffitte was convicted in November on six federal charges and sentenced to 84 months in prison in August. He was also ordered to pay $3.55 million in restitution. In court documents filed Aug. 8, Laffitte appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit from the sentence handed down Aug. 1.
Lawyers have yet to agree on a trial date for Russell Laffitte over 21 state charges.
Copyright 2023 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.