S.C. Editorial Roundup for Oct. 16, 2021


The (Charleston) Post and Courier

Oct. 9

Murdaugh mystery raises questions about legal system

Even the best system can't stop a determined criminal from committing crimes.

But the unfolding Murdaugh saga - from the boat wreck that wasn't properly investigated to the attempted suicide-insurance scam and now evidence of elaborate extortion schemes - has given even lawyers and judges an uneasy feeling about South Carolina's legal system.

Is the rot confined to one community, one law firm, even one man? Or is this an exaggerated example of the sort of thing that happens throughout a state with an insular network of lawyers and judges - the overwhelming majority of whom attended the same law school, many of whom travel in the same social circles, particularly in smaller communities - where conspiracies can be easily hatched and nurtured?

A Columbia attorney put an exclamation point on that vague feeling of unease on Tuesday, when he made an apparently unprecedented request for Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen to give a deposition in his lawsuit alleging that Alex Murdaugh conspired to steal millions of dollars in insurance money due the sons of his deceased housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.

Although Eric Bland said he believed Judge Mullen had been misled when she apparently signed an order approving a $2.7 million insurance payment to Ms. Satterfield's sons and $1.6 million in fees to attorney Cory Fleming, the request raised questions. Why, after recusing herself from the criminal case against Alex Murdaugh's son Paul because of close ties to the family, did Judge Mullen involve herself in the insurance matter? Or did she? Does she usually sign orders when no lawsuit has been filed? At best, that suggests a too casual and trusting approach to her job. Do her orders frequently end up unfiled?

Mr. Bland withdrew his request a day later, saying he had been pressured to drop it, and besides, he had found enough other evidence against Mr. Murdaugh and Mr. Fleming that he no longer needed the judge's testimony.

We hope that pressure came from lawyers who just don't like the idea of breaking the tradition of judges speaking only through their court orders, and not from judges who erroneously believed they were protecting the integrity of our judicial system. Because the rest of us still need to hear from Judge Mullen, as the first of many steps to help clear up growing questions about what protections we have to ensure that lawyers are representing the interests of their clients and how we ensure that judges don't allow their personal relationships with lawyers to cloud their judgment.

We take some comfort in how our criminal justice system has worked since Paul and Maggie Murdaugh's murders turned the powerful Hampton County family's saga into daily dinner table conversation in South Carolina and beyond: Alex Murdaugh's law partners say they discovered he was cheating clients and the firm and forced him to resign; the S.C. Supreme Court suspended his law license; SLED discovered the alleged conspiracy behind his shooting; Mr. Bland unearthed the unfiled legal order that showed the millions owed to Ms. Satterfield's sons, which might never have happened if not for all the publicity; and on Friday, the high court suspended Mr. Fleming's law license, even though he had agreed to give the sons his legal fees, along with payments to come from malpractice insurance.

Yet these appropriate responses have mainly served to highlight deeply disturbing failures. Public confidence is the foundation of our legal system, and its erosion can be cured only through … well, we're not sure what at this point.

The S.C. judiciary has some serious soul searching to do, and the Legislature has some serious questions to ask. That will not be quick or easy work, because there's no obvious solution. At this point, we don't really even know how big the problem is.

But we know it can only be resolved through the sort of transparency that our court system seems determined to guard against, with its secretive attorney and judicial disciplinary systems and the judicial code of silence. The healing starts with Judge Mullen subjecting herself to a public questioning about what she knew and didn't know and what was routine and out of the ordinary about how she handled this bizarre case. The S.C. Supreme Court needs to find a way to both allow and require her to do this, and sooner is better than later.

The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat

Oct. 11

DHEC data make case for vaccines

A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that COVID-19 vaccinations may have helped prevent roughly 6,300 new COVID-19 infections and 800 deaths among seniors in South Carolina during the first five months of 2021.

The study, which was conducted by researchers with HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, also found that nationally, vaccinations were linked to a reduction of approximately 265,000 COVID-19 infections, 107,000 hospitalizations and 39,000 deaths among Medicare beneficiaries between January and May 2021.

"This report reaffirms what we hear routinely from states: COVID-19 vaccines save lives, prevent hospitalizations, and reduce infection," HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra stated.

Further making the case for vaccinations are S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control data showing the majority of recent COVID-19 cases in the state, including severe cases, are among individuals who are not fully vaccinated.

From Aug. 16 through Sept. 15, DHEC reported 149,738 cases among South Carolinians.

- Among the 1,993 reported cases where DHEC was able to determine vaccine status, 27,435 (85.8%) of cases were considered not fully vaccinated.

- Among the 1,771 reported cases who were hospitalized with COVID and where DHEC was able to determine vaccine status, 1,277 (72.1%) were considered not fully vaccinated.

- Among the 760 reported deaths from COVID where vaccine status was able to be determined, 589 (77.5%) were considered not fully vaccinated

Additional DHEC data points from the analysis show how many breakthrough cases are among those with pre-existing/comorbid conditions:

- Among the 411 reported cases who were hospitalized with COVID and fully vaccinated (that DHEC was able to determine the vaccination and comorbid status) 388 (94.4%) have pre-existing/comorbid conditions.

- Among the 143 reported deaths from COVID who were fully vaccinated, 138 (96.5%) had pre-existing/comorbid conditions.

"We continue to see the majority of severe cases occurring among our fellow South Carolinians who are not fully vaccinated," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC public health director. "Not being fully vaccinated puts people at increased risk of being hospitalized or dying if they become infected with COVID-19."

DHEC's mission in the state is: "To improve the quality of life for all South Carolinians by protecting and promoting the health of the public and the environment."

The agency's official position is for South Carolinians to get a COVID vaccination. Its numbers from the pandemic make a strong case to follow the advice.

The (Greenwood)


Oct. 7, 2021

Beware of shifting sand; communities becoming 'news deserts'

Have you ever been to the coast and watched how the wind blows sand and changes the landscape? What you once saw can disappear in a minimal amount of time.

Or have you watched as the tide comes in and sandcastles that children have built quickly return to their former selves and become just another part of the expansive beach?

How appropriate, then, that the latest Uncovered installment by the Post and Courier's Tony Bartelme centered on how a sand miner - sand is a multi-million business - turned a town's dream of a beautiful park into little more than particles of sand.

You should read the story in its entirety if you haven't already done so. It published Monday and is on our website, indexjournal.com, free to read. Here's the gist of what Batelme found:

"... Awendaw, a town 30 minutes north of Charleston, ... acquired 290 acres more than a decade ago with $5.17 million generated by the county's half-cent sales tax. Then the town struck a deal with a mining company to excavate sand to create a large lake. The town hoped the lake would be the centerpiece of a new park, and that the sand would help pay for the park's construction.

"That didn't quite happen, despite the rising value of sand. The town received far less royalty money than it expected - just $150,000. Today, millions of dollars in sand and dirt are gone; the park isn't built, and town officials are scrambling to find other ways to pay for it. ... The findings raise new questions about the controversial project and its high-profile sand miner, Elliott Summey."

The point?

Well, again, it is National Newspaper Week, and we join other newspapers in trying to share what we thought was and should be obvious: newspapers have a vital role in serving their communities.

Sure, there are plenty of feel-good stories and features to be shared by newspapers. There are high school and college athletics to report and individual athletes to feature. But there also are the important stories that need telling, the ones that require digging and digging, unearthing facts and asking questions.

As we and the Post and Courier have noted in stories and commentary, too many communities are losing their newspapers and the very people who do that digging and uncovering of questionable activity, wholesale corruption, abuse of power and trust and the abuse of tax dollars. Those communities are called "news deserts."

Awendaw has lost its gold mine sand dune and quite possibly its park has been plucked away by the sandman, but even worse for a community is when it finds itself in a news desert.

Sadly, many people do not even see the erosion of knowledge and information until it's too late, until the sand has covered their key source of valuable information, until the sand has covered the tracks left by those who have wantonly and knowingly committed outright crimes and violated a host of ethics.