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South Carolina judge denies Alex Murdaugh’s bid for new trial

Judge Toal’s ruling earlier this month had set a difficult standard for the defence to prove jury tampering

Andrea Blanco,Rachel Sharp
Tuesday 30 January 2024 12:50 GMT
Alex Murdaugh is denied appeal over jury communications

A South Carolina judge has ruled that comments made by a court clerk did not sway a jury’s guilty verdict in Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial last year.

On Monday, Judge Jean Toal denied a request by Murdaugh’s attorneys for a new trial over claims that Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill, who went on to write a book about the six-week double murder trial, had tampered with jurors.

The judge did acknowledge that Ms Hill had a conflict of interest but said that the “fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity-seeking clerk of court” were not sufficient to grant a new trial.

“I find that the clerk of court was not completely credible as a witness. Miss Hill was attracted by the siren call of celebrity,” Judge Toal said.

Judge Toal called the jurors to the stand one by one and questioned them about potential comments that may have tainted their verdict. Only one of the jurors, identified as juror Z by Judge Toal, said that Ms Hill’s remarks made it seem like Murdaugh was guilty.

Other jurors questioned denied hearing inappropriate remarks made by Ms Hill, or being influenced by her comments.

During cross-examination, Murdaugh’s attorney Dick Harpoolitan read an excerpt from Ms Hill’s book where she wrote that while visiting Murdaugh’s estate with jurors she had locked eyes with them with the “unspoken understanding” that Murdaugh was guilty. Mr Harpoolitan also asked if she “made up” facts because she was motivated by financial gain.

Murdaugh Killings Appeal (The State Newspaper, 2024)

Ms Hill testified under oath she had taken some “poetic license”, but never told jurors that she thought Murdaugh was guilty. She also admitted that she made around $100,000 in book sales, and apologised for plagiarizing reporting from a BBC reporter in her book. “

“I’m very sorry and I have apologized,” she said.

Judge Toal’s ruling earlier this month had set a difficult standard for the defence to prove. She ruled Murdaugh’s attorneys had to prove that potential misconduct including alleged comments by Ms Hill warning jurors not to trust Murdaugh when he testified directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.

Ms Hill has denied all of the allegations levelled against her in a September motion from Murdaugh’s legal team. In a sworn statement, the state branded the allegations as “a sweeping conspiratorial theory” and said that “not every inappropriate comment made by a member of court staff to a juror rises to the level of constitutional error”.

One of the most damning accusations centres around the dismissal of juror number 785, just hours before jury deliberations began.

According to Murdaugh’s attorneys, Ms Hill “invented a story about a Facebook post to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty”.

Prosecutor Creighton Waters, left, and defense attorney Dick Harpootlian stand during the Alex Murdaugh jury-tampering hearing (AP)

Judge Clifton Newman, who oversaw the murder trial, removed the female juror from the panel for allegedly discussing the case with at least three other people outside of the court. The woman then prompted some light-hearted – and widely-reported – relief when she asked to pick up her “dozen eggs” from the jury room before she left.

According to the motion, Ms Hill had gone to Judge Newman on 27 February – the day after Murdaugh testified – claiming that she had seen a post in the local Facebook group “Walterboro Word of Mouth” from juror 785’s former husband, Tim Stone.

The post purportedly claimed that the juror was drinking with her ex-husband and, when she became drunk, she expressed her views on whether Murdaugh was innocent or guilty. A follow-up post from an account called Timothy Stone apologised for the post saying that he was driven by “Satan”.

In a court filing, Murdaugh’s attorneys claimed that the Mr Stone behind the Facebook posts was actually a random Georgia man who was ranting about his wife’s aunt – and has no connection to the case. Murdaugh’s attorneys had claimed that – based on these allegations – he should be granted a new murder trial.

Judge Newman announced that he would stand down from any future proceedings in the murder case – paving the way for Judge Toal to step into the role.

Ms Hill is now the subject of two investigations by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (Sled) – the same state agency that led the investigation into the murders of Murdaugh’s wife Maggie and son Paul.

But Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his younger son with a shotgun and his wife 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 defence.

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.

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