COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Attorneys for convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh are asking South Carolina's highest court to prevent the judge who presided over his murder trial from playing a role in the next phase of Murdaugh's legal odyssey.
Lawyers for the disbarred attorney want to block Judge Clifton Newman from hearing Murdaugh's request for a new trial. They also want the state Supreme Court to remove Newman from an upcoming case prosecuting Murdaugh over a string of financial crimes that prosecutors say he committed as his life spiraled out of control in the years before he killed his wife and son.
Wednesday's request was part of Murdaugh's appeal of the guilty verdicts and life sentence from his trial last spring.
His lawyers said elected Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill allegedly tampered with the murder trial jury by asking jurors their opinions on his guilt or innocence before the trial was over, suggesting to them she thought he was guilty and pressuring them to reach a verdict quickly.
The defense wants Newman removed from deciding whether there will be a full hearing into Hill's actions, saying the judge could likely be a witness because of his interactions with Hill.
They also said Newman, in several post-trial interviews, indicated he thought Murdaugh was guilty. The defense argues this could prevent him from fairly deciding if the murder trial was unfair.
While stressing they don’t suggest the judge acted improperly as he presided over the trial, defense attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin argued in their motion that Newman is a material witness to Hill’s actions in court.
Newman, or a judge who replaces him, will have to decide whether to hold a full hearing on the defense's allegations. That hearing would enable defense attorneys to force the other jurors, witnesses and potentially even Newman to testify under oath. The defense could also get phone records, emails and texts. Defense attorneys have suggested jurors had group texts going.
Murdaugh is serving life without parole in the shooting deaths of his wife and younger son at their home in 2021. Investigators said 52-year-old Maggie was shot four or five times with a rifle and 22-year-old Paul suffered two shotgun blasts.
Even if his conviction is overturned, Murdaugh likely will remain in prison. He is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal charges he stole millions of dollars from clients and his family law firm, which will probably mean years or decades behind bars. That trial is set to begin later this month.
In an earlier court filing, his lawyers summarized how they think Hill tampered with the jury in the murder case.
“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.
Prosecutors argue that not all jurors agree with the defense's allegation. Although the prosecution hasn't responded to the motion to remove the judge, they did write a letter to Newman saying they do not think he should step down. They say bringing another judge up to speed on the trial's many details would be too costly and expensive.
Murdaugh's lawyers also give the same reasons for wanting Newman removed from a trial on dozens of charges that Murdaugh stole money from clients and his law firm: They say his comments show his mind is already made up.
They cite Newman's comment to the jury after its guilty verdicts about “all the evidence pointing to only one conclusion and that's the conclusion that you all have reached.” In a speech at his alma mater, Newman said Murdaugh “committed an unforgivable, unimaginable crime and there is no way he'll be able to sleep peacefully.”
Newman's age requires him to retire as a judge at the end of the year, and Murdaugh's lawyers suggest that's why he spoke so much afterward, figuring it would be years before the appeals were heard. But the allegation against Hill required an immediate hearing, they said.
And while they think Newman's comments broke judicial rules, Murdaugh's attorneys said they don't want him punished.
The defense is asking the state Supreme Court to suspend any trials or hearings about Murdaugh's case until they determine whether Newman should be removed.