Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers want a new trial. They say the court clerk told jurors not to trust him
Sep 5, 2023, 9:29 AM | Updated: 2:50 pm
(Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool, File)
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Attorneys for convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh want a new trial, accusing the court clerk of improperly influencing the jury and betraying her oath of office for money and fame.
They’ve accused the court clerk at his double murder trial of telling jurors not to trust him when he testified in his own defense, having private conversations with the jury foreperson and pressuring jurors to come to a quick verdict.
The request filed by Murdaugh’s lawyers on Tuesday also accuses Rebecca Hill, Colleton County clerk of court, of giving jury members business cards from reporters during the trial. After the verdict, she traveled to New York City with three of the jurors to do interviews. She also wrote a book after the trial called “Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders.”
Trial court clerks “aren’t someone who should even talk to them about the case. I’ve never heard of that,” said Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian, a state senator and lawyer for 50 years.
Hill did not respond Tuesday to requests from The Associated Press for comment on the filing. Prosecutors said they were reviewing the motion and would respond through the courts.
Murdaugh wants the appellate judges to order an evidentiary hearing and, once they have more information on the record, to grant him a new trial. The 55-year-old disbarred attorney is serving life without parole after being convicted in the shooting deaths of his wife and son.
Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin said everyone the defense tried to talk to refused to respond until Hill’s self-published book came out. Only then did a few reluctant jurors answer the door as Harpootlian’s team made another round of in-person visits on weekends.
The hearing would enable defense attorneys to force the other jurors, witnesses and potentially even the trial judge to testify under oath. The defense could also get phone records, emails and texts. Right now they have only what Harpootlian’s team gathered by visiting jurors’ homes.
“We have nothing but Dick’s Mercedes and dirt roads in Colleton County,” Griffin said at a news conference outside the state Court of Appeals.
The defense has talked to four jurors and included sworn statements from two of them. A lawyer for those jurors, Joe McCullough, was at the news conference and said they came forward reluctantly and didn’t want to talk about their motivation or what they thought about Murdaugh.
The request for the new trial centers on Hill, who was elected clerk of court in 2020.
Hill had private conversations with the jury foreperson, both inside the courthouse and when jurors visited the crime scene at the Murdaugh’s property, according to sworn statements from three jurors included in Murdaugh’s appeal. The filing didn’t include any statement from the foreperson.
The jurors told Murdaugh’s lawyers that Hill told them “not to be fooled” by the evidence presented by the defense, and to watch Murdaugh closely as he testified and to “look at his actions,” and “look at his movements.” One juror said they understood it to mean Murdaugh was guilty.
The appeal also says Hill lied to the judge during the six-week trial about a Facebook post that led to the dismissal of a juror. Hill said the juror’s ex-husband posted that she was talking about the case and about what the verdict would be.
Hill never presented the post, only showing the judge an apology from what she said was the ex-husband’s account. But the apology post did not come from the ex-husband’s account, and the defense said an analysis of his Facebook account shows he made no post that day, the attorneys wrote.
Murdaugh’s lawyers filed a transcript from a closed door meeting over the juror, where Judge Clifton Newman said “I’m not too pleased about the clerk interrogating a juror as opposed to coming to me and bringing it to me.”
As the jury began deliberating late in the afternoon on March 2, Hill said they’d be taken to a hotel if they didn’t reach a verdict by 11 p.m., upsetting jurors who didn’t pack for an overnight stay, the defense motion said. Some jurors said Hill also told smokers on the jury that they couldn’t take a cigarette break until they had reached a verdict: “You want nicotine, you’re going to have to return a verdict form,” Harpootlian said.
After less than three hours in the jury room following the six-week trial, they were unanimous, convicting Murdaugh of two counts of first-degree murder.
“I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by other jurors,” Juror 630 wrote in a sworn statement, adding that Hill pressured the jurors to talk to reporters after the trial. The appeal redacts their names, identifying jurors only by their numbers from the trial.
The final pages of the 65-page appeal cite a contract between Hill and a production company, with a handwritten note supposedly from Hill saying that in exchange for her appearance, they had to show the cover of her book in their production.
South Carolina law sets a high bar to overturn a jury verdict. Murdaugh’s lawyers said Hill’s conduct was so egregious, it tainted the entire trial and they had no chance to defend against it.
“She asked jurors about their opinions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence. She instructed them not to believe evidence presented in Mr. Murdaugh’s defense, including his own testimony. She lied to the judge to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty. And she pressured jurors to reach a guilty verdict quickly so she could profit from it,” they wrote.
Murdaugh’s lawyers also sent a letter to federal prosecutors asking them to have the FBI step in to investigate, because the State Law Enforcement Division, which was the lead agency for Murdaugh’s prosecution, has an vested interest in maintaining his conviction.
Even if Murdaugh’s murder conviction is overturned, he likely will stay in prison. He filed papers in federal court saying he plans to plead guilty to stealing from clients and his law firm later this month — charges that would likely mean years if not decades behind bars.