Attorneys for Alex Murdaugh on Friday filed a motion in state court asking for a trial judge to convene a hearing to consider whether Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill unlawfully tampered with the jury that convicted Murdaugh of two counts of murder in the shooting deaths of his wife and son.
Although the S.C. Court of Appeals in mid-October granted the Murdaugh attorneys permission to request a hearing in state court on Hill’s alleged jury tampering, the attorneys had not formally done so until Friday.
When a hearing is held, its facts will show “the court must grant a new trial,” the motion said.
The Murdaugh attorneys — Dick Harpootlian, Jim Griffin, Phil Barber and Margaret Fox — had no comment. The motion was filed in Colleton County, where jurors spent less than two hours deliberating last March after six weeks of trial and found Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, and son Paul.
It is now up to a trial judge, perhaps Judge Clifton Newman, to decide when to hold the hearing and what the rules should be, including whether jurors who decided Murdaugh’s guilt should have to testify in public about whether they were influenced by Hill.
“I’ve never heard of a case like this, where a hearing will be held about whether a clerk of court committed jury tampering,” said veteran Columbia criminal defense lawyer Jack Swerling.
In his 50 years of trying cases, Swerling said, he’s heard about bailiffs, jury members or members of the public being accused of jury tampering, but never a clerk of court, an elected official whose duties include overseeing jurors while they sit on cases.
“A lot of people in the legal community are just stunned that a clerk of court could be accused of trying to sway a jury,” Swerling said. “People are waiting to see what the evidence is and who the court will allow to be called to testify.”
In their motion, which includes affidavits from jurors, the Murdaugh attorneys allege that Hill had “many private conversations with jurors about the merits of the case,” asked jurors their opinions of the case and “instructed them not to believe” evidence offered on behalf of Murdaugh, including Murdaugh’s own statements from the witness stand.
Hill’s comments violated Murdaugh’s rights to a fair trial and were made to promote Hill’s book, “Behind the Doors of Justice,” one of the first to be published after the trial, Murdaugh’s lawyers said in the motion. The book was published in late July and has undergone several revisions.
The Attorney General’s office, which prosecuted the case against Murdaugh, had no immediate comment.
But in mid-September, the Attorney General’s office filed a motion saying that a preliminary investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division had already cast doubt on some jury tampering allegations.
If no credible evidence is found to support jury tampering allegations, “the state will be prepared to argue against the motion” (for a new trial), the Attorney General’s office said in a Sept. 15 filing.
Attorney General Alan Wilson had requested that SLED agents investigate allegations of jury tampering. No findings of that investigation have been made public.
Hill’s lawyers, Will Lewis and state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, had no immediate comment.
Murdaugh, 55, a disbarred lawyer and member of a wealthy and politically powerful fourth-generation legal family, is now in state prison, serving two consecutive life sentences in the 2021 shooting deaths.
Murdaugh, who has steadfastly denied killing his wife and son, is also awaiting sentencing in federal court for orchestrating white collar thefts of nearly $9 million over more than a decade. He has confessed to stealing from friends, his law firm, former clients and fellow lawyers.
His case, with its obsessive brew of gruesome murder, betrayals, money, mystery and huge thefts, has attracted national attention for more than two years.