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Alex Murdaugh is denied a new trial after a judge hears jury tampering allegations

Alex Murdaugh, left, confers with Phil Barber during his hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center in Columbia, S.C., on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.
Tracy Glantz
/
The State via AP,/Pool
Alex Murdaugh, left, confers with Phil Barber during his hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center in Columbia, S.C., on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Updated January 29, 2024 at 6:08 PM ET

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina judge denied Alex Murdaugh's bid for a new double-murder trial on Monday 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.

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."

One member of the jury that convicted Murdaugh of murdering his wife and son testified that Hill made the comments and it indicated to her she thought Murdaugh was guilty. But the 11 other jurors said they based their guilty verdicts only on the testimony, evidence and law presented at trial, and just one of them mentioned hearing anything similar.

"I find that the clerk of court was not completely credible as a witness. Miss Hill was attracted by the siren call of celebrity," Toal said, issuing her decision at the end of a daylong hearing. But she said that Hill's comments did not by themselves merit a new trial, because they didn't actively change the jurors' minds.

All 12 jurors answered mostly yes-or-no questions from the judge's script. Murdaugh, now a convicted killer, disbarred attorney 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.

But Judge Jean Toal questioned her truthfulness after Hill said she used "literary license" for some things she wrote about in her book on 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.

Murdaugh's defense later called Barnwell County Clerk Rhonda McElveen, who helped Hill during the trial. McElveen said that Hill suggested before the trial that they should 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.

But 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 was telling 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 defense.

"She made it seem like he was already guilty," said the woman, identified only as Juror Z. 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.

"What matters is what the jurors heard," and whether that persuaded them to change their verdicts to guilty in a way that was anything other than the product of honest deliberation, prosecutor Creighton Walters said in closing. "You have 11 of them strong as a rock who said this verdict was not influenced," Waters said. "The evidence is overwhelming from the people who mattered."

Defense attorney Jim Griffin, in his closing, cited case law in arguing that any communication about a case from court staff to jurors is presumptively prejudicial. He said the defense clearly proved Hill made prejudicial comments to the jury, and "one of those jurors says it influenced my verdict. How is that not prejudice?"

Murdaugh's 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 Toal set a difficult standard for his lawyers. She ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct by Hill 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 even subtle influence could have kept Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.

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 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.

Hill, in a sworn statement, has denied any jury tampering. She did admit to the lifting the writing of the BBC reporter.

"I did plagiarize ... and for that I am sorry," Hill said from the stand.

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.

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.

Even if this effort fails, Murdaugh hasn't even started the regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue a number of 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.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press