The bonds online were in the exact amounts that a magistrate judge set for Murdaugh hours later, according to court data obtained via a public records request. A court clerk said the postings were an error.
The Murdaugh family controlled the five-county solicitor's office from Hampton County for 85 years, prosecuting thousands of individuals who passed through the Hampton County Detention Center. On Sept. 16, a member of that family, suspended lawyer Alex Murdaugh, entered that jail. His bond hearing was in the courtroom next door.
At the hearing, his lawyer, a state senator, argued for Murdaugh to be released on personal recognizance — a promise to return with no requirement to pay upfront — and enter a drug treatment facility out of state. He said Murdaugh had a 20-year opioid addiction that was the aggravating factor of his alleged crime.
The prosecutor, Creighton Waters with the S.C. Attorney General's office, asked for a $100,000 surety bond — requirement to pay a portion upfront to leave jail — along with GPS monitoring, citing Murdaugh's fall from grace and his plans to be out of state, which could make him a danger and a flight risk.
But the bonds for his three charges — insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and falsifying a police report — apparently already had been set.
Hampton County Magistrate Judge Tonja Alexander granted Murdaugh three personal recognizance bonds to go to drug treatment, with no GPS monitoring. The bonds she set were online hours before: PR bonds of $10,000 for insurance fraud, $5,000 for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, and $5,000 for filing a false police report
'I'm not a robot'
In an interview, the Hampton County Magistrate Court clerk stressed that the bonds posting online were strictly a human error.
Tuwana Fryar, the magistrate clerk, said she mistakenly inserted the bond information of another, unrelated defendant into the court management system for Murdaugh's case, and when she realized the mistake, quickly corrected it.
The other defendant's bond hearing was later in the day, she said, but she didn't remember who it was.
"I'm a human. I'm not a robot," Fryar said. "I make mistakes. It was an error."
According to court records, only one defendant besides Murdaugh received a $10,000 personal recognizance from Judge Alexander on the same day in Hampton County — for assault and battery in the second degree.
But that doesn't account for the two other bonds Murdaugh received, for $5,000 apiece, which were also put in the system early.
Earlier that morning, Judge Alexander set bond at $55,000 for the man accused of shooting Murdaugh in the alleged scheme, Curtis Smith, 61, of Walterboro.
— $20,000 bond for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature
— $15,000 for assisted suicide
— $10,000 for insurance fraud
— $5,000 for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud
— $5,000 for pointing and presenting a firearm.
Alexander set them as surety bonds, however, and Smith had to pay a bail bondsman a nonrefundable fee to post the bonds and get out of jail.
His lawyers have argued Smith is being made out as the "fall guy" by Murdaugh. Murdaugh told investigators that he had asked Smith to kill him so his son, Buster, would receive a $10 million insurance payout.
'Appearance of impropriety'
Records released via the Freedom of Information Act showed the first bond filings on Murdaugh's charges went into the court computer system at 11:57 a.m. on Sept. 16.
Much of the basic information — name, charge, warrant number — transfers automatically from the warrant to the online case record. But bond amounts have to be entered manually, a source in a county clerk's office, who was not authorized to speak on the matter, confirmed.
There is no entry showing his bond information being entered.
But at 2:31 p.m., 89 minutes before Murdaugh's hearing, entries for all three of Murdaugh's charges were edited to change the bond amounts to zero from what they were before: $10,000, $5,000, and $5,000.
Bond hearings are supposed to happen before bond amounts are posted online. Judges hear arguments from both sides at a bond hearing, and then make a decision on bond — not before, according to Ginny Jones, public information officer with the S.C. Courts Administration.
In magistrate courts, "bond hearings can create demanding situations for court staff, and in some cases, court staff may choose to enter some case information into CMS as a placeholder prior to a bond hearing," Jones wrote in response to a FOIA request.
However, "entering the type and amount of bond prior to the hearing should not happen, as setting bond is solely a judicial function," according to Jones.
It's not clear whether Judge Alexander knew about the bonds being entered before the hearing. The judge did not respond to a voicemail left on Monday.
Fryar said it was simply a mistake. She said multi-tasking as one of two court staff, during a day when throngs of national media were there for the hearing, caused the error to happen.
Lawyers for Murdaugh did not respond to two calls and a text message. Judge Alexander did not meet with lawyers from either side prior to the hearing to talk about bond, Fryar said.
"We did NOT meet with the judge or agree to any bond prior to the hearing, and we expressed our position at the hearing, which was a surety bond and GPS," wrote Robert Kittle, a spokesperson for the AG's office, in an email.
Port Royal defense attorney Jared Newman said it's "not an unusual occurrence" for the defense and prosecution to meet before a hearing and come to a decision about bond, then present it to a judge. But if that were the case, they would usually skip the formality of a hearing.
With an extremely high-profile case like Alex Murdaugh's, Newman said, "You want to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
"Sunshine: just put it all out in the court," he said. "Let the state make their argument, let the defense make their argument, let the judge decide."
Who is Judge Tonja Alexander?
Hampton County Magistrate Judge Tonja Alexander was appointed to the court in April 2018 after working for 20 years as a classification case manager at a Jasper County prison, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections.
The local legislative delegation for Hampton County, Sens. Brad Hutto and Margie Bright Matthews, nominated her.
The S.C. Courts and S.C. Bar websites do not list Alexander, indicating she may not have a law degree. Nearly three-quarters of all S.C. magistrates do not have law degrees, according to a November 2019 investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier.
She's married to the brother of Yemassee Police Chief Gregory Alexander, the chief confirmed.
Like many in Hampton County, which has a population of 18,561 according to the 2020 Census, Judge Alexander has tenuous ties to the Murdaugh family.
The judge's brother-in-law, Chief Alexander, says he is running for Hampton County sheriff in 2022 after Sheriff T.C. Smalls retires. He's currently running unopposed.
Of the nearly $20,000 Gregory Alexander has raised since February, $6,000 was donated by members of Alex Murdaugh's former law firm, including $1,000 from his brother Randolph Murdaugh. A company affiliated with Murdaugh's other brother, John Marvin, donated $250 to his campaign.
Sen. Bright Matthews, who is friends with the Murdaugh family, said it doesn't make sense for people to focus on connections with the Murdaughs.
"Drawing connections that everybody knows each other, in and of itself, what does that tell you?" Matthews asked on Monday. "That doesn't tell you whether or not that person can evaluate the facts fairly. And it doesn't mean that (Alex Murdaugh) loses his constitutional rights."
All Judge Alexander had to consider was danger to the community and the flight risk, she said. Matthews said she doesn't know whether Alexander knows Murdaugh, but to focus on that just creates more speculation.
"Everybody's going to know everybody in Hampton," she said.
Additionally, conspiracy theories about lawyers and judges being connected via the Murdaughs in an insidious way are "unfortunate," Matthews said.
"It's unfortunate because the Lowcountry is still the Lowcountry," she said, "and we still have to live with each other."
This story was originally published November 9, 2021 1:25 PM.
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