Alex Murdaugh update: Failed polygraph breaches plea agreement, US government says in court filing

Murdaugh attorneys claim the polygraph examiner engaged in "odd conduct" before administering an exam.

ByDianne Gallagher, Alta Spells and Dakin Andone, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, March 29, 2024
Alex Murdaugh update: Failed polygraph breaches plea agreement, US government says in court filing
Alex Murdaugh denies the allegation that he breached the plea agreement, his attorneys said in their own filing Thursday

Alex Murdaugh failed a polygraph test administered as part of the plea agreement for the disgraced former attorney's raft of financial crimes, violating the deal, which required his truthfulness, federal prosecutors said in a court filing Tuesday.

As a result, the US Attorney's Office for the District of South Carolina is asking a court to release the federal government from the terms of that agreement, freeing prosecutors from their obligation to recommend Murdaugh serve a federal prison sentence concurrent with one imposed in state court for similar crimes.

Murdaugh "denies the allegation" that he breached the plea agreement, his attorneys said in their own filing Thursday opposing a request by prosecutors that the court seal the polygraph examination report.

"To allow the Government to publicly accuse Murdaugh of breaching his plea agreement while also allowing the Government to hide all purported evidence supporting that accusation from the public would violate the public's right to the truth," their response says.

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Murdaugh attorneys, who claimed the polygraph examiner engaged in "odd conduct" before administering an exam, asked the judge to deny or delay ruling to hold Murdaugh in breach of his plea agreement until the polygraph charts are provided to him, according to a sentencing memorandum filed Thursday afternoon.

CNN has requested comment from Murdaugh's lawyers and the prosecutor's office.

The now-disbarred attorney is already serving 27 years for similar crimes after pleading guilty in state court to nearly two dozen charges including money laundering, breach of trust, conspiracy, forgery and tax evasion. That's in addition to the two consecutive life sentences he received a year ago after he was convicted of the June 2021 murders of his wife and 22-year-old son; killings state prosecutors argued were carried out to offer a distraction as his financial schemes unraveled.

The revelation of the failed polygraph test comes days before Murdaugh's federal sentencing hearing, scheduled for Monday, April 1. He pleaded guilty in September to 22 charges of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering. Each carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 or 30 years in prison, federal prosecutors said previously.

Murdaugh was accused of carrying out several schemes aimed at defrauding his personal injury clients and law firm of millions of dollars in settlement funds that he then used for his personal benefit, according to an indictment.

As part of his plea deal in the federal case, Murdaugh agreed to submit to polygraph examinations conducted by an examiner of the government's choice, the court filing Tuesday says, as officials work to prosecute any coconspirators and to recover Murdaugh's "ill-gotten gains" for his victims. About $6 million remains unaccounted for, the filing says.

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In exchange for his cooperation, and for being "fully truthful and forthright" with law enforcement, the government "agreed to recommend Murdaugh's federal sentence be served concurrently with any state sentence imposed." If the agreement was breached "due to Murdaugh's lack of truthfulness," the government would be free to seek a maximum sentence, the filing says, and Murdaugh could not withdraw his guilty plea.

In October 2023, an FBI polygraph examiner conducted a two-part polygraph test on Murdaugh, the filing says. The results indicated deception, causing Murdaugh to fail and, the government argues, voiding the plea agreement.

Attorneys claim polygraph examiner displayed 'odd conduct'

The specifics of the examination, like what Murdaugh was asked and how he responded, are not publicly known.

The government's filing indicates the examination was conducted "on issues related to hidden assets and the involvement of another attorney in Murdaugh's criminal conduct."

In the sentencing memorandum, Murdaugh's attorneys allege that that the government's conduct leading up to the polygraph exam and the agent's conduct during "raises significant concerns as to whether the Government has acted in good faith."

"It appears that the polygrapher designed the relevant question in such a way to ensure that Murdaugh would fail the exam," the attorneys claim in the document.

The examiner displayed "odd conduct during the pre-test interview," including "declaring his belief that Murdaugh is innocent of the murders of his wife and son," Murdaugh's attorneys allege.

Attorneys also say the examiner was "'secretly' confiding" in Murdaugh that he had just returned from performing a polygraph examination related to the murder of Natalee Holloway.

They further allege that the examiner and Murdaugh "argued" over the meaning of the term "hidden assets," which was used in his test question, while contending they believe several of the examiner's questions "run afoul" of the Global Polygraph Network standards for designing polygraph questions.

Prosecutors had proposed a motion to seal the polygraph examination report and four FBI reports about interviews with Murdaugh last year.

All are related to an ongoing grand jury investigation, the motion said, and allegations of criminal activity by other people. Sealing the evidence is necessary to protect the integrity of that investigation, prosecutors argued, noting in a footnote that Murdaugh's attorneys are opposed to sealing the polygraph report.

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Murdaugh's attorneys urged the court to deny the motion to seal the evidence in a filing Thursday, arguing prosecutors had not explained why a "less drastic" action, like a redaction of the polygraph and FBI interviews, would not be sufficient, as required by a court rule.

"But most importantly, the Government accuses Murdaugh of breaching his plea agreement and Murdaugh denies the allegation," their filing says. "The public has a right to know the truth of the matter through judicial proceedings that are open and transparent, not closed and sealed."

Murdaugh's attorneys also called into question some of the language used in the government's motion to release them from plea agreement obligations, noting that the "Department of Justice's own policy manual precludes the federal prosecutors from claiming that Murdaugh was lying or being deceptive. Simply put, a polygraph machine does not detect lies."

In a Thursday night filing, federal prosecutors addressed claims by Murdaugh's attorneys that the government miscalculated the total losses and how his previous criminal history should play into sentencing consideration. The prosecutors called both claims "contrary to law and logic."

Murdaugh cried during the hearing last September as he told the judge he was pleading guilty of his own free will - not just because he was guilty, but also so his surviving son could see his father take responsibility for his actions and help his victims heal, according to three attorneys who were present.

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