A South Carolina judge on Monday denied Alex Murdaugh‘s bid for a new trial after his defence team accused a clerk of court of tampering with a jury.
Judge Jean Toal said she wasn’t sure if Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill was telling the truth that she never spoke to jurors about the case, saying she was “attracted by the siren call of celebrity.”
But Toal said the 12 jurors who testified all said any comments did not directly influence their decision to find Murdaugh guilty.
Toal said after reviewing the full transcript of the six-week trial, she couldn’t overturn the verdict based “on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity-seeking clerk of court” because they didn’t actively change the jurors’ minds.
All 12 jurors took the 90-mile (145-kilometre) trip from Colleton County to Columbia to give what was typically about three minutes of testimony, mostly yes-or-no questions from the judge’s script. Murdaugh, now a convicted killer, disbarred lawyer and admitted thief serving a life sentence, wore an orange prison jumpsuit as he watched with his lawyers.
Hill also testified, denying she ever spoke about the case or Murdaugh at all with jurors.
“I never talked to any jurors about anything like that,” Hill said.
Toal questioned her truthfulness after Hill said she used “literary license” for some things she wrote about in her book about the trial, including whether she feared as she read the verdict that the jury might end up finding him not guilty.
“I did have a certain way I felt,” Hill said.
Get the latest National news.
Sent to your email, every day.
Murdaugh’s defence later called Barnwell County Clerk Rhonda McElveen, who helped Hill during the trial. McElveen said that Hill suggested before the trial that they write a book on the case together, “because she wanted a lake house and I wanted to retire,” and that a guilty verdict would sell more books.
Under cross-examination, McElveen said she didn’t reach out to the trial judge because she didn’t think any of Hill’s comments or behaviors 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 clerk said it was a gut feeling after years in a courtroom.
The unusual hearing was prompted in part by a sworn statement from the first juror called to the stand Monday.
She affirmed what she said last August, repeating Monday that Hill told jurors to note Murdaugh’s actions and “watch him closely” when he testified in his own defence.
“She made it seem like he was already guilty,” the woman, identified only as Juror Z, said. Asked whether this influenced her vote to find him guilty, she said, “Yes ma’am.”
In later questioning, the juror said she also stands by another statement she made in the August affidavit: that it was her fellow jurors, more than the clerk’s statements, that influenced her to vote guilty.
“I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by other jurors,” she said.
The rest of the jury filed in one by one and said their verdicts weren’t influenced by anything outside the trial. One said he heard Hill say “watch his body language” before Murdaugh testified, but said Hill’s comment didn’t change his mind.
“You have 11 of them strong as a rock who said this verdict was not influenced,” prosecutor Creighton Waters said. “The evidence is overwhelming from the people who mattered.”
Defence attorney Jim Griffin said Toal’s belief that Hill was not credible will eventually be a win in an appeals court and Murdaugh’s conviction will be overturned.
“The innocent man was wrongly convicted — we didn’t think she would say that,” Griffin said outside court.
Murdaugh’s fall from his role as an lawyer lording over his small county to a sentence of life without parole has been exhaustively covered by true crime shows, podcasts and bloggers.
Toal set a difficult standard for Murdaugh’s lawyers. She ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct by Hill directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.
Toal was Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court for 15 years before retiring. She was appointed by the current high court justices to rule on the juror misconduct allegations.
Toal also limited what could be asked of Hill, ruling out extensive questions about a criminal investigation into whether the elected clerk 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 using a passage from a BBC reporter who accidentally emailed her instead of her boss with a similar address.
Hill admitted lifting the writing of the BBC reporter during her Monday testimony.
Even if Murdaugh, 55, gets a new murder trial he won’t walk 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.
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 defence.
Even if this effort fails, 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.
© 2024 The Canadian Press