Another twist in the Alex Murdaugh double murder case. Did the clerk tamper with the jury?
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Alex Murdaugh’s double murder case has been full of twists and turns: How did a dog crack the case? Where are the bloody clothes and weapons? And where did all the money Murdaugh is accused of stealing go?
But one of the biggest surprises came on Tuesday, six months after Murdaugh was convicted of killing his wife and son.
Murdaugh’s lawyers filed court papers saying he deserves a new trial because elected Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill allegedly tampered with the jury that found him guilty earlier this year. Prosecutors have 10 days to respond.
Here’s a look at what the next chapter of Murdaugh’s case could look like.
WHAT IS THE CLERK ACCUSED OF DOING?
Murdaugh’s defense attorneys sum it up in a paragraph of the 65-page appeal.
“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.
Hill is accused of having one-on-one chats with the jury foreperson, sometimes behind closed doors in a bathroom. She allegedly told jurors who smoked they couldn’t take a cigarette break until a verdict was reached. She also gave jurors the business cards of reporters during the trial, according to the defense.
Hill also allegedly told the jury “not to be fooled” by the evidence presented by the defense, to watch Murdaugh closely as he testified and to “look at his actions,” and “look at his movements.” One juror said in a sworn statement that they understood that to mean Murdaugh was guilty.
The clerk also traveled to New York City — she said it was her first time on a plane — to be with three jurors who gave TV interviews after the trial.
“Clerks are supposed to help get people in the courtroom, organize exhibits, get lunch or answer simple jury questions like finding the bathroom,” said lawyer John Fishwick Jr., a former U.S. Attorney. “You are never supposed to talk to a jury about the case.”
Murdaugh’s defense has asked the FBI to investigate Hill because South Carolina state agents are too closely connected to the case. The agency has not responded publicly.
Hill has not responded publicly to the allegations.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Murdaugh’s lawyers said they talked to four jurors whose stories matched and included sworn statements from two of them in their legal filings.
They are asking appeals court judges to order a hearing where all the jurors, Hill and maybe even trial judge Clifton Newman could be required to testify under oath. Attorney Dick Harpootlian said they tried to talk to all jurors, but some were hostile toward his team.
Murdaugh’s lawyers would also be able to subpoena emails and texts. Defense attorney Jim Griffin said there appears to be a group text among jurors since the trial and some wanted to know who was talking to his team.
If a judge decides Hill behaved improperly, Murdaugh’s conviction and life sentence without parole could be tossed out and a new trial ordered.
But chances are he wouldn’t get out of prison. Murdaugh has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges stealing millions of dollars from clients and his family law firm, which will likely mean years or decades behind bars.
WHAT CONSEQUENCES COULD HILL FACE, OR THE JURORS?
It’s unclear what consequences Hill could face if the FBI investigates or if a judge decides she acted improperly in her role as court clerk. State law indicates that clerks of court can face charges and penalties if they fail to report collecting fines and other money.
State law does not provide a way to kick an elected clerk out of office, but the governor can suspend her if she is indicted.
The jurors likely won’t face any penalties unless they were found to lie under oath if a hearing is held.
WHY ARE JURORS TALKING?
Griffin said no one wanted to talk the first time the defense reached out right after the trial.
Then Hill wrote a self-published book called “Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders,” which upset some jurors, and they reluctantly began talking to the defense, said Joe McCullough, an attorney hired by the jurors.
Hill’s book discusses how her Christian faith helped her navigate the sudden fame and responsibility that came with the trial. She said she became convinced of Murdaugh’s guilt when jurors and court officials visited the family home where the shootings happened.
She wrote she was nervous as she prepared to read the verdicts. “I was mostly concerned about Alex being found innocent when I knew in my heart he was guilty,” Hill wrote.
McCullough said both the defense and prosecution should want a full hearing so everything can be known.
“Jury deliberations are the most sacrosanct part of the jury trial process. We must all see that the fairness of the process is protected,” he said in a statement.
WHAT’S THE REACTION?
Typically, Murdaugh’s defense gets blasted from other lawyers who have clients that Murdaugh is accused of stealing from. But there was no criticism Tuesday.
“Time will tell whether there is any merit in this latest Murdaugh missive, or whether this is just another Murdaugh misdirection. In the meantime, it is important to keep in mind that the system has to work even for the worst of us — this is our only assurance that it will work for the rest of us,” wrote Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter who represent the family of a former Murdaugh maid who died in a fall. Investigators said Murdaugh stole the entirety of a wrongful death settlement on her behalf from the family.
Prosecutors have said nothing about the merit of the allegations, adding they would “respond through the legal process at the appropriate time.”
The bar is high for a judge to throw out a jury verdict. But if a hearing backs the allegations, there isn’t a choice but to overturn the conviction because it involves such an important court figure, Fishwick said.
“We’re talking about the clerk of court. It’s an influence from inside the courtroom that is never supposed to happen,” Fishwick said. “That is going to put a lot of pressure on the system and the only way to cleanse it is a new trial.”
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