Judge denies Alex Murdaugh's bid for new double-murder trial after hearing jury tampering allegations

A South Carolina judge on Monday denied Alex Murdaugh’s bid for a new trial after his defense team accused a clerk of court with tampering with a jury.

Judge Jean Toal ruled that even if Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill did tell jurors to watch Murdaugh’s actions and body language on the stand, the defense failed to prove that such comments directly influenced their decision to find him guilty.

Murdaugh was back in a South Carolina courtroom Monday, but this time the convicted killer, disbarred attorney and admitted thief wasn’t the one fidgeting in the spotlight.

Instead, it was the jurors who found him guilty of the shooting deaths of his wife and son who were questioned by Toal on whether comments by Hill, the court clerk, influenced their conviction. Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison.

The first juror questioned Monday said Hill did tell jurors to watch Murdaugh’s actions and “watch him closely.”

“She made it seem like he was already guilty,” said the woman, identified only as Juror Z. Asked whether this affected her vote to find him guilty, she said “Yes ma’am.”

In later questioning the juror said she supports a sworn statement she gave months ago that her fellow jurors, more than the clerk’s statements, influenced her to vote guilty.

APTOPIX Murdaugh Killings Appeal
Alex Murdaugh, right, talks with his defense attorney Jim Griffin during a jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. 

Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool

Several other jurors called later said they didn’t hear any comments about the case from the clerk and that nothing from outside the testimony and evidence influenced their verdicts. One said he heard Hill say “watch his body language” before Murdaugh testified, but said her comment didn’t change his mind.

Each juror’s testimony lasted only about three minutes as the judge asked the same questions from her written sheet.

In another surprising twist, a bailiff interrupted the hearing to share that because the jurors’ cellphones were not taken from them on arrival at court, several were able to watch the Court TV live feed and heard everything the first juror said.

Despite the setback, the judge said she would proceed to get the jurors’ testimony on the record, and resumed the hearing after a short break, in part to enable herself to calm down, she said. “We are going to get through this,” she declared.

The unusual hearing comes in response to the tampering allegations by Murdaugh’s attorneys.

Hill also is expected to be grilled by lawyers for Murdaugh, whose fall from his role as an attorney lording over his small county to a sentence of life without parole has been exhaustively covered by true crime shows, podcasts and bloggers.

Jury tampering is the basis for Murdaugh’s appeal, but Judge Toal’s rulings after a pretrial hearing this month had set a difficult standard for his lawyers to prove.

Toal ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct including alleged comments by Hill warning jurors not to trust Murdaugh when he testifies directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.

The defense argued if they prove the jury was tampered with, it shouldn’t matter whether a juror openly said their verdict changed, because the influence can be subtle and still keep Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.

“According to the State, if Ms. Hill had the jury room decorated like a grade-school classroom with colorful signs saying ‘Murdaugh is guilty’ that would not violate Mr. Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial … so long as jurors did not testify that they voted guilty because of the decor,” the defense wrote in a brief.

Toal also did not let the defense call the trial judge Clifton Newman as a witness, nor prosecutors or other court workers who might testify that Hill seemed certain of Murdaugh’s guilt or tried to influence the case.

The judge also limited what can be asked of Hill. Toal told lawyers they can’t question the elected clerk about a criminal investigation announced by state agents into whether she used her office for financial gain, emailed prosecutors with suggestions on how to discredit a defense expert, conspired with her son who is charged with wiretapping county phones, or plagiarized part of her book on the case using a passage from a BBC reporter who accidentally emailed her instead of her boss with a similar address.

“I’m very, very reluctant to turn this hearing about juror contact into a wholesale exploration about every piece of conduct by the clerk,” Toal said.

CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman said that the jurors being ordered to testify was unusual.

“It is very, very rare,” Klieman said. “The judge has said, ‘this will not be a trial of the court clerk.’ So all that this judge wants to know about is, was the verdict actually affected by any actions of the court clerk.”

Attorney Eric Bland represents five of the jurors, one of whom has already testified.

“I’m confident that they’re gonna say they rendered a just verdict,” Bland told CBS News.

Hill, in a sworn statement, has denied any jury tampering.

Murdaugh, 55, appeared at the hearing in a prison jumpsuit. Even if he had gotten a new murder trial, he would not have walked out free. He’s also serving 27 years after admitting he stole $12 million from his law firm and from settlements he gained for clients on wrongful death and serious injury lawsuits. Murdaugh promised not to appeal that sentence as part of his plea deal.

But Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his younger son Paul with a shotgun and his wife Maggie with a rifle since the moment he told deputies he found their bodies at their Colleton County home in 2021. He testified in his own defense.

The jurors, their anonymity protected, were allowed to enter the Richland County Courthouse through a private entrance. The hearing was televised, but their faces could not be shown and they were only identified by their juror numbers.

“It does not matter your name, position, or status, no one is above the law,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement Monday evening. “After that thorough investigation, and a fair public hearing, it is clear that Alex Murdaugh’s convictions for the murders of Maggie and Paul are based solely upon the facts and evidence of the case. It is time to move on and forward.”

Murdaugh hasn’t even started the regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue several reasons why his murder trial was unfair, including the judge allowing voluminous testimony of his financial crimes. They said this enabled prosecutors to smear Murdaugh with evidence not directly linked to the killings.

By 111 Tech

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