COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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 last week, 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.
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.
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.
Prosecutors have said nothing about the merit of the allegations, adding they would “respond through the legal process at the appropriate time.”