Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
alert-–-judge-denies-alex-murdaugh-retrial-request-and-says-court-clerk-becky-hill’s-comments-did-not-influence-juryAlert – Judge DENIES Alex Murdaugh retrial request and says court clerk Becky Hill’s comments did NOT influence jury

A judge in South Carolina has denied Alex Murdaugh’s request for a retrial, ruling that the jury was not influenced by court clerk Becky Hill’s comments about him – despite Murdaugh’s lawyers’ claims. 

‘I do not believe the authority of our South Carolina Supreme Court requires a new trial on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments,’ said Judge Jean Toal. 

‘This is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge. I do not feel that I abuse my discretion when I find the defendant’s motion for a new trial, must be denied. 

‘It is so ordered. I will file a full order which denies this motion.’  

Murdaugh, 55, was convicted in March 2023 of murdering his wife Maggie and son Paul in June 2021. 

Prosecutors based their case on damning cell phone evidence that showed him at the crime scene near the time of the murders. The pair were both shot dead at the family’s hunting lodge. 

He has maintained his innocence throughout and claims the 12-person jury pool was tainted from the beginning, influenced by a swarm of media attention and by the actions of Hill – who went on to write a book about the case. 

Alex Murdaugh, center, talks with his defense attorney Jim Griffin, left, during a jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center on Monday

Alex Murdaugh, center, talks with his defense attorney Jim Griffin, left, during a jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center on Monday

Jurors said court clerk Becky Hill influenced their decision. The judge today said Hill was attracted by the 'siren call of celebrity' to write a book

Jurors said court clerk Becky Hill influenced their decision. The judge today said Hill was attracted by the ‘siren call of celebrity’ to write a book 

They asked for a retrial based on jurors’ remarks that court clerk Becky Hill made improper comments to them that they said sounded as if she was trying to influence them by telling them to ‘watch’ Murdaugh ‘closely’. 

One of the 12 jurors said that Hill’s conduct did influence her. 

‘To me, it felt like she made it seem like he was already guilty,’ the juror testified on Monday. 

Asked whether this influenced her vote to find him guilty, she said: ‘Yes ma’am.’

In later questioning, the juror told the judge that her August affidavit was accurate, in that she felt her fellow jurors, rather than Hill, convinced her to convict Murdaugh.

‘I had questions about Mr Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by other jurors,’ she said.

Judge Jean Toal said Hill was attracted by the ‘siren call of celebrity’ because she wanted to write a book about the trial.

While the judge undermined her credibility, she praised the jury for reaching a verdict in the high profile trial last year. 

Murdaugh’s lawyers, speaking outside court, said that the judge found Hill was ‘not credible’, and that will assist their case at the court of appeals. 

Jim Griffin said that they had ‘indications from lawyers representing jurors’ that they needed to talk to Hill, and ‘she told us things that were jaw-dropping.’ 

Griffin continued: ‘We were denigrated, made fun of, in our filing for pointing out that she had a profit motive for this. And the judge agreed with us.

‘This is not the final step. If we had won today, the state would be appealing. It’s all going to go to the state Supreme Court.’

Dick Harpootlian, another of Murdaugh’s lawyers, added: ‘We all agree that Becky Hill tried to influence these jurors. The judge said the law is unsettled. So we will go to the state Supreme Court.’ 

Hartpootlian added: ‘This issue is not harmless error. It can’t be.’

He said they intend to find ‘who really did it’.

Asked how Murdaugh reacted to the decision, Hartpootlian replied: ‘Fine.’

Eric Bland, a lawyer representing five of the 11 jurors, said they were ‘pleased’ at the result. 

‘The decision was their own conscious. It was not influenced by anything anyone said or done,’ said Bland.

‘Yes, there was one juror. That is her conscience. But like the state said, we can’t have verdicts that go in perpetuity: that was my verdict then, and this is it now.

‘The verdict was the product of free negotiations in the jury room. She did not feel that this verdict was the result of anything Becky Hill said or did.

‘We cannot continue to have trials that go over and over again.’

Bland said he had ‘a big problem with some things Becky said.’

He said ‘Becky may have to answer for some of the things.’

Hill wrote a book about the case, ‘Behind the Doors of Justice’, but made just $100,000 from it, she told the court on Monday.

Harpootlian asked Hill about her television appearances following Murdaugh’s guilty verdict, and about the book.

She admitted that she spoke to people about the possibility of publishing a book before the murder trial ended last year.

She also admitted the book has now been taken off shelves after she plagiarized parts of it. 

On the stand, Hill denied trying to influence the jury in any way, and denied a juror’s claim that she had warned the jury to ‘watch Murdaugh closely’ before his testimony.

Court Clerk Becky Hill is seen on the stand in Monday's hearing to determine whether Alex Murdaugh will get a new trial for the murders of his wife and son

Court Clerk Becky Hill is seen on the stand in Monday’s hearing to determine whether Alex Murdaugh will get a new trial for the murders of his wife and son

Convicted killer Alex Murdaugh was back in court as he tries to get a new murder trial

Convicted killer Alex Murdaugh was back in court as he tries to get a new murder trial

‘I did the jury to pay attention just generally,’ Hill added.  

Hill admitted she sent an email saying she believed the jury would not take long to come up with a verdict

Hill published a book, Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders, on the trial in July

Hill published a book, Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders, on the trial in July

‘It’s a gut feeling, that’s all I meant by that,’ Hill told the court when asked by she said the jury would not take long to deliver on Murdaugh’s fate. 

The court clerk also admitted telling a court reporter she told Murdaugh was guilty, but added: ‘none of us were jurors.’

Hill’s testimony came after Murdaugh’s team had a win in court when one of the jurors who convicted him said their verdict was influenced by Hill.

The first juror questioned on Monday, Juror Z, shocked the room as she said that her verdict was indeed influenced by court clerk Hill. They claimed that before the verdict was reached Hill approached the jury telling them to ‘watch Murdaugh closely.’

‘She made it seem like he was already guilty,’ the first juror questioned on Monday told the court.

Juror Z added that she felt pressure from the other jurors to convict Murdaugh, and that Hill pushed the jury to appear on television after the verdict. 

However, Juror Z was the only of 12 jurors who said her verdict was influenced by Hill. Nine jurors said they did not hear comments from Hill, and two said they heard comments but they did not influence their thinking.

Judge Toal, a former state Supreme Court Chief Justice, was forced to stop the hearing on Monday after learning the jury had been watching the livestream from the jury room with their cellphones, which hadn’t been confiscated. 

Defense attorney Jim Harpootlian's asked Hill about her television appearances following Murdaugh's guilty verdict, and about the book she published on the case

Defense attorney Jim Harpootlian’s asked Hill about her television appearances following Murdaugh’s guilty verdict, and about the book she published on the case

‘They tuned this thing in on Court TV and listened to all of what just went on,’ judge Toal told the court.

A somber-looking Murdaugh entered the packed court room on Monday in handcuffs and shackles before he joined his defense team.

As Judge Toal welcomed the jury that convicted Murdaugh back to the court, she clarified they are not accused of any misconduct and apologized for the ‘terrible inconvenience.’ 

‘You have done absolutely nothing wrong – none of you. You didn’t ask to serve but you served and did your duty,’ he said.

Jury tampering is the basis for Murdaugh’s appeal, but Judge Toal´s rulings after a pretrial hearing this month have set a difficult standard for his lawyers to prove.

One juror – Juror X – already took the stand in Murdaugh’s appeal on Friday, and denied that Hill affected their verdict in any way.

Toal ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct including alleged comments by Hill warning jurors not to trust Murdaugh when he testifies directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.

Judge Toal was forced to stop the hearing on Monday after learning the jury had been watching the livestream from the jury room with their cellphones

Judge Toal was forced to stop the hearing on Monday after learning the jury had been watching the livestream from the jury room with their cellphones

Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill, pictured with Judge Newman, is being accused by Murdaugh's defense team of influencing the jury as they move for a retrial

Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill, pictured with Judge Newman, is being accused by Murdaugh’s defense team of influencing the jury as they move for a retrial 

Murdaugh’s six-week murder trial, which concluded in March, became a sensation with its mix of privilege, brutality and power. The judges, lawyers and Hill herself all became minor celebrities. 

The defense made a number of allegations after the guilty verdict, including that Hill told jurors their deliberations shouldn’t take long, thereby implying Murdaugh was guilty. 

Murdaugh’s attorneys have also said Hill had conversations in a private bathroom with the jury forewoman and handed jurors business cards of media members who wanted interviews before deliberations. 

Hill and three jurors did end up in New York City after the trial for a NBC interview. Hill wrote in her self-published book it was her first plane trip. 

The defense has argued if they prove the jury was tampered with, it shouldn’t matter whether a juror openly said their verdict changed, because the influence can be subtle and still keep Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.

Judge Jean Toal ruled that only the 12 jurors who convicted Murdaugh of his wife and son's murders can testify as the disgraced lawyer seeks a new trial

Judge Jean Toal ruled that only the 12 jurors who convicted Murdaugh of his wife and son’s murders can testify as the disgraced lawyer seeks a new trial

Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his son Paul with a shotgun and his wife Maggie (both circled) with a rifle

Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his son Paul with a shotgun and his wife Maggie (both circled) with a rifle

Toal also won’t let the defense call the trial judge Clifton Newman as a witness, nor prosecutors or other court workers who might testify that Hill seemed certain of Murdaugh’s guilt or tried to influence the case.

The judge also limited what can be asked of Hill. Toal told lawyers they can’t question the elected clerk about a criminal investigation announced by state agents into whether she 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 previous sworn statement, has denied any jury tampering.

Griffin and Harpootlian also claim Hill traveled with jurors to New York when they appeared on NBC's Today Show. Jurors James McDowell, Gwen Generette and Amie Williams waived their right to anonymity to appear on the show back in March

James McDowell, Gwen Generette and Amie Williams waived their right to anonymity to appear on NBC’s TODAY show to discuss the case that captivated the nation for six weeks

Even if Murdaugh 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.

He 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.

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.

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