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Alex Murdaugh stumbles as he returns to court to fight for a new murder trial

Three-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether Murdaugh will be retried for June 2021 murders set to begin on 29 January

Andrea Cavallier
Tuesday 16 January 2024 22:51 GMT
Alex Murdaugh stumbles as he enters court

Alex Murdaugh stumbled over his feet as was escorted back into a South Carolina courtroom to fight for a new trial nearly a year after he was convicted of killing his wife and son.

The disgraced legal scion wore a bright orange jumpsuit and was handcuffed for his appearance at the pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, which was held to determine what evidence and witness testimony the court will hear later this month.

It appeared Murdaugh missed the last step leading into the courtroom, which sent the six-foot-four tall man off kilter for a brief second before he composed himself.

He faces a steep uphill battle in his push for a new murder trial after former South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal limited witness questioning and set a high burden of proof surrounding accusations that the court clerk tampered with the jury during last year’s sensational proceedings, The Associated Press reported.

Murdaugh’s defence lawyers Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian, who appeared beside him at the pre-trial proceedings, filed the motion for a new trial alleging that Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill pressured the jury into reaching a guilty verdict.

But Judge Toal said that even if the allegations were proven, the defence must also demonstrate that Ms Hill did so with prejudice against Murdaugh.

(Gavin McIntyre/The Post and Courier via AP, Pool)

Judge Toal took over the request for a new trial after the judge overseeing the case, Clifton Newman, recused himself late last year.

The state judge also said she would not ask about other wide-ranging accusations of wrongdoing against Ms Hill, including that the elected official misused public funds and plagiarised parts of her new book on the Murdaugh saga.

The latest allegation arose during the pre-trial proceedings with Murdaugh’s defence lawyer Dick Harpootlian claiming that the court clerk told a colleague that a murder conviction would be good for her book sales.

“[Prosecutor Creighton Water] told me this morning that one of the assistants that worked for Hill during the trial was told by Ms Hill during the trial that a guilty verdict would be good for sales for the book,” Mr Harpootlian said of Ms Hill. “Motive: Selling books.”

Judge Toal ruled that the clerk must testify at the hearing but emphasised that this is not a “trial of Ms Hill.”

“I’m very, very reluctant to turn this hearing about juror contact into a wholesale exploration about every piece of conduct by the clerk alleged to have been improper on its own, indicative of her characteristics or personality, or anything of that nature,” she said.

“This is not the trial of Ms Hill,” she later added, emphasising that the inquiry is focused on the court clerk’s interactions with jurors and the jury’s ability to impartially reach a verdict.

Former South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal on Tuesday limited witness questioning and set a high burden of proof surrounding accusations that the court clerk tampered with the jury (The State Newspaper, 2024)

Hill has denied all allegations of jury tampering, and prosecutors argue that Murdaugh’s defence team has weak evidence to prove their argument for a new trial.

State police are investigating the jury tampering and misuse of office allegations against Ms Hill but have not charged her with any crimes. Her attorneys did acknowledge last month, however, that she had submitted a BBC reporter’s writing to her co-author “as if it were her own words.”

Judge Toal struck another blow to the defence by blocking questions about what effect the jury tampering alleged by Murdaugh’s lawyers might have had on jury deliberations, The Associated Press reported. She will ask jurors only about its possible impact on their final conclusion, not how they reached their decision.

“No one — not myself or anyone else — is going to be asking a juror about the specifics of their deliberation,” Judge Toal said.

Rebecca ‘Becky’ Hill has denied all allegations of jury tampering (Colleton County)

She also ruled that neither the attorneys in the case nor Judge Newman will testify at the three-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether Murdaugh will be retried for the June 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and his son Paul, which is set to begin on 29 January.

Court television cameras will be allowed for the evidentiary hearings, but cameras cannot focus on the testifying jurors, who will be referred to by their number and not their names.

Murdaugh is serving life imprisonment without parole after a jury found him guilty last March of the double murder. He also faces an additional 27 years after pleading guilty in November to stealing millions of dollars.

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