Alex Murdaugh’s new trial for double murder has been dismissed after a judge heard allegations of jury tampering
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina judge on Monday denied Alex Murdaugh’s bid for a new trial after his defense team accused a court clerk of jury tampering.
Judge Jean Toal ruled that even if Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill had asked jurors to observe Murdaugh’s actions and body language on the stand, the defense failed to prove that such comments directly influenced their decision to convict him.
During the day-long hearing, a member said The jury that convicted Alex Murdaugh of killing his wife and son She testified that Hill made the comments and made it clear to her that she believed Murdaugh was guilty. But the other 11 jurors said they based their guilty verdicts solely on the testimony, evidence and law presented at trial, and only one reported hearing anything similar.
After reviewing the full transcript of the six-week trial, Toole said she was unable to overturn the verdict based on “the strength of some passing and foolish comments made by the publicity-seeking court clerk.”
“I find that the court clerk was not entirely credible as a witness. Ms. Hill was attracted by the appeal of celebrity,” Toal said, handing down her decision at the end of an all-day hearing. But she said Hill’s comments did not in themselves merit a new trial, because they did not change Jury opinion effectively.
All 12 jurors made the 90-mile (145-kilometer) trip from Colleton County to Columbia to give what was usually about three minutes of testimony, mostly yes-or-no questions from the judge’s transcript. Mardonow a convicted murderer, disbarred lawyer, and admitted thief serving a life sentence, wore an orange prison jumpsuit as he watched with his lawyer.
Hill also testified, denying that she ever talked about the case or Murdaugh to jurors.
“I’ve never talked to any jurors about anything like that,” Hill said.
But Judge Jean Toal questioned her honesty after Hill said she used “literary licence” in some of the things she wrote about in her book about the trial, including whether she feared when she read the verdict that the jury would find him not guilty.
“I felt a certain way,” Hill said.
Murdaugh’s defense later contacted Barnwell County Clerk Rhonda McIlveen, who assisted Hill during the trial. McIlveen said Hill suggested before the trial that they write a book about the case together, “because she wanted a house on the lake and she wanted to retire,” and that a guilty verdict would sell more books.
But during cross-examination, McIlveen said she did not communicate with the trial judge because she did not believe any of Hill’s comments or behavior rose to the level of misconduct.
Hill was also questioned about why she told people hours before the jury received the case that she expected deliberations to be short. The writer said it was a gut feeling after years in the courtroom.
The extraordinary hearing was prompted in part by a sworn statement from the first juror called to the stand Monday.
She confirmed what she said last August, repeating Monday that Hill asked jurors to note Murdaugh’s actions and “watch him closely” when he testified in his own defense.
“You made it seem like he was actually guilty,” said the woman, identified only as Juror Z. When asked if this influenced her vote to convict, she said, “Yes, ma’am.”
In subsequent questioning, the juror said she also stood by another statement she made in an affidavit in August: that it was her fellow jurors, more than the clerk’s statements, who influenced her to vote guilty.
“I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt, but I voted guilty because I felt pressure from the other jurors,” she said.
The rest of the jury gave their statements one by one and said their verdicts were not affected by anything outside the trial. One said he heard Hill say “watch his body language” before Murdaugh testified, but said Hill’s comment did not change his mind.
“What matters is what the jurors heard,” prosecutor Creighton Walters said in conclusion, and whether that convinced them to change their verdicts to guilty in a way other than the product of honest deliberation. “You have 11 of them who are solid as a rock who said they were not affected by this ruling,” Waters said. “The evidence is overwhelming from the people who matter.”
In closing, defense attorney Jim Griffin cited case law in arguing that any communication about a case from court personnel to jurors is presumed prejudicial. He said the defense had clearly proven that Hill made offensive comments to the jury, and “one of those jurors said it affected my judgment.” How is this not bias?
Jury tampering is the basis of Murdaugh’s appeal, however Toole set a difficult standard To his lawyer. It ruled that the defense must prove that potential misconduct by Hill directly caused jurors to change their minds and convict.
The defense argued that if they proved that the jury was tampered with, it should not matter whether one juror explicitly said their verdict was changed, because even subtle influence could have prevented Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.
Toal was Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court for 15 years before his retirement. She was appointed by sitting Supreme Court justices to rule on allegations of juror misconduct.
Tulle It also limited what could be asked of Hilldismissing wide-ranging questions about a criminal investigation into whether the elected employee used her office for financial gain, emailed prosecutors with suggestions on how to discredit a defense expert, conspired with her son, who is accused of wiretapping county phones, or stole part of her book. about the case using a clip of a BBC reporter who mistakenly emailed her instead of her boss with a similar address.
“I’m very, very hesitant to turn this hearing about juror contact into a blanket exploration of every employee conduct,” Toal said.
Hale, in a sworn statement, He denied any jury tampering. She admitted to uploading a BBC reporter’s writing.
“I plagiarized, and I’m sorry for that,” Hill said from the stand.
Even if Murdaugh, 55, gets a new murder trial, he will not walk free. him too He served 27 years After he admitted to stealing $12 million from his law firm and from settlements he obtained for clients in manslaughter and serious injury cases. Murdoch promised not to appeal that ruling as part of the plea deal.
But Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his younger son, Paul, with a rifle, and his wife, Maggie, with a shotgun, from the moment he told deputies their bodies were found in their Colleton County home in 2021. He testified in his own defence.
Even if those efforts fail, Murdaugh has not even begun regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue a number of reasons the murder trial was unfair, including the judge allowing significant testimony from the defendants. His financial crimes. They said this enabled prosecutors to discredit Mardo with evidence not directly linked to the killings.