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SC law enforcement agencies deny access to public records in Murdaugh homicide case

colleton county courthouse.jpg

Colleton County Courthouse is pictured on June 9, 2021. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — After three days of investigating the killings of two members of the well-connected Murdaugh family, law enforcement officials continue to withhold basic information about the high-profile case.

The Post and Courier has attempted to obtain investigative reports and a 911 recording that would reveal more information about how Paul Murdaugh, 22, and his mother, Maggie, 52, died the night of June 7 at the family's sprawling estate in Colleton County. 

But police have denied those requests, citing the active investigation. 

The Post and Courier has filed a formal request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act with the Colleton County Sheriff's Office for the 911 tape. 

Under FOIA, law enforcement officials must provide reports created in the past 14 days that "disclose the nature, substance, and location of any crime" to anyone who requests the records in person during business hours. 

A Post and Courier reporter attempted to obtain such records from the Colleton County Sheriff's Office on June 9. The agency provided a one-sentence report but refused to release any other information, claiming the State Law Enforcement Division was the custodian of the records, since they were leading the investigation. 

On June 10, a Post and Courier reporter attempted to request the same records in person at SLED's headquarters in Columbia. The reporter was not permitted to enter the building and was told via intercom he needed to contact the department's public information officer. 

Spokesman Tommy Crosby has told The Post and Courier that SLED would not release the records. He claimed the number of redactions necessary to release the documents would make them unreadable. 

Jay Bender, an attorney who specializes in open records law, said both law enforcement agencies seem to be violating the law.

"It's easy to look like you know what you're doing if you're the only one that knows what you're doing," he said. 

He said SLED has a long history of refusing to release information from investigations, even ones that have been completed. 

In 1992, the Newberry Observer, a weekly newspaper, sued the Newberry County Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse seeking access to a report prepared by SLED in possession of the commission. 

SLED intervened in the case to assert its interest in maintaining the report's confidentiality. 

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled in the newspaper's favor, stating that SLED had an obligation to separate nonexempt from exempt material and release the nonexempt material to the newspaper. 

“In sum, we emphasize that law enforcement agencies do not have carte blanche to deny all FOIA requests for criminal investigative reports,” the supreme court determined. “The information contained in these reports can be withheld from disclosure only to the extent that it falls within one or more of the exemptions enumerated in section 30-4-40(a).”

Police have the right to redact certain information contained in the materials, but they can't refuse to release the information entirely, according to Taylor Smith, attorney for the S.C. Press Association. 

Both attorneys also said the Colleton County Sheriff's Office could not shirk its responsibility to release records in its possession.

Under FOIA, any record retained by a public body is considered a public record, unless statutes say otherwise. Unless the Sheriff's Office destroyed all its records related to the homicide investigation, which Smith pointed out would be "baffling," they must provide those records. 

The Post and Courier sent a letter June 10 to SLED Chief Mark Keel warning him that his agency is violating FOIA law. 

"We understand that some information may need to be withheld so as to protect the investigation," the letter reads. "But public information serves the public good. In the absence of information, rumor and gossip fills the void, which is detrimental to our communities and the people who reside in them." 

Bender also sent an email to SLED's general counsel about the records. 

Memorial service

A graveside service for Paul and Maggie Murdaugh is planned for noon Friday in Hampton. 

An obituary states Paul Murdaugh loved the outdoors, in particular hunting at the family's lodge in Moselle with his father, Alex Murdaugh. 

A junior at the University of South Carolina, he was often found cheering on the Gamecocks with friends and family. 

"No one was more loving and genuine than Paul, and because of this, his personality was one-of-a-kind," the obituary reads. 

Maggie Murdaugh, a 1991 graduate of the University of South Carolina, was a generous and welcoming woman who will be remembered as a "second mom" to her sons' many friends, her obituary reads. 

She loved welcoming guests into the family's home, and cherished spending time on the boat with her two sons. 

On June 10, the law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick confirmed the family's patriarch Randolph Murdaugh III had died. 

His passing was not related to the June 7 shooting. A cause of death was not provided. 

The firm was started by Randolph Murdaugh in 1910.

Jamie Lovegrove contributed from Columbia. 

Reach Steve Garrison 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT.

Steve Garrison covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native of Chicago who previously covered courts and crime in Wisconsin, New Mexico and Indiana. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Missouri.

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