Judge denies a new murder trial for Alex Murdaugh after hearing jury tampering allegations

Murdaugh's attorneys alleged the court clerk tampered with the jury that last year found him guilty.

ByDakin Andone and Dianne Gallagher, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, January 31, 2024
Judge denies new murder trial for Alex Murdaugh
Alex Murdaugh, the former South Carolina lawyer who was convicted last year of killing his wife and son, will not receive a new murder trial, a judge ruled Monday.

COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. -- Alex Murdaugh, the former South Carolina lawyer who was convicted last year of killing his wife and son, will not receive a new murder trial, a judge ruled Monday.

Murdaugh's attorneys alleged the court clerk tampered with the jury that last year found him guilty.

The judge held the clerk of court made improper comments to the jury but ruled the comments did not influence the verdict reached by the jury.

Judge Jean Toal, in announcing her ruling, said she was not convinced the clerk, Rebecca "Becky" Hill, was a completely credible witness and had been affected by the chance to be a celebrity.

"I simply do not believe that the authority of our South Carolina Supreme Court requires a new trial in a very lengthy trial such as this on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity influenced clerk of courts," the judge, a retired justice on the state's high court, said.

A hearing to decide whether Alex Murdaugh should receive a new murder trial begins Monday

One of the jurors who found Alex Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and 22-year-old son testified Monday comments made by the Colleton County, South Carolina, clerk of court influenced her verdict.

But every other juror questioned as part of an evidentiary hearing testified their verdicts were not influenced by Hill, who's been accused by Murdaugh and his attorneys of inappropriately discussing the case with jurors and pressuring them to conclude deliberations quickly.

Hill has denied the allegations, and she did so again while testifying at the hearing Monday afternoon.

The first juror questioned Monday, identified as Juror Z, testified she was influenced by remarks Hill made, telling the judge she heard the clerk say to "watch his actions" and to "watch him closely." Hill's comments, Juror Z said, "made it seem like he was already guilty." Asked if Hill's comments affected her finding of guilt, the juror said, "Yes, ma'am."

Juror Z was also asked about an affidavit where she indicated she had questions about Murdaugh's guilt but voted for a guilty verdict "because I felt pressure by the other jurors." Asked by the judge if it was "a more accurate statement of how you felt," the juror said, "Yes, ma'am," affirming she stood by the affidavit.

The affidavit also said prior to Murdaugh testifying, Hill told the jurors "not to be fooled" by evidence offered by the defense. The juror wrote she took it as an indication Murdaugh would lie.

The other 11 jurors denied being influenced, though two said they also heard comments made by the clerk when Murdaugh took the stand to testify.

ALSO SEE: Alex Murdaugh sentence: Convicted murderer sentenced 27 years in state prison for financial crimes

Juror X, who testified Friday due to a scheduling conflict, described hearing Hill say that day was "important" and "epic" because of Murdaugh's testimony, while Juror P testified Monday about hearing Hill make a comment about watching Murdaugh's body language. But both jurors said those comments did not influence their decision to convict.

Murdaugh's jury deliberated for about three hours before it convicted him last March of murdering his wife, Maggie, and his son, Paul, at the family's hunting estate in June 2021. Prosecutors said the killings were an attempt by Murdaugh to distract from and delay investigations into an array of financial crimes he was carrying out, targeting his own clients and law firm.

Murdaugh, who is serving two consecutive life sentences for the murders, denies killing his wife and son. He is also serving 27 years in prison after pleading guilty to two dozen state financial crimes.

Clerk denies allegations

The case brought international attention - numerous documentaries, books and podcasts have been made about it - to Murdaugh, a former personal injury attorney whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather served as prosecutors for a portion of southern South Carolina from 1920 to 2006.

By extension, it also brought notoriety to the South Carolina Lowcountry, the people who live there and those who played a role during the high-profile trial. Hill co-authored a book, which published several months after the trial ended, and participated in a Netflix docuseries about the case.

In their motion for a new trial, Murdaugh and his attorneys also allege Hill misrepresented information to the trial judge about a juror who was ultimately dismissed. Hill's alleged tampering, Murdaugh's defense team claims, was meant "to secure for herself a book deal and media appearances that would not happen in the event of a mistrial."

Hill filed a signed affidavit last November denying 26 specific accusations from Murdaugh's motion for a new trial, and she reiterated those denials on the stand Monday.

RELATED: How Paul Murdaugh helped solve his own murder

Under questioning by prosecutor Creighton Waters, Hill acknowledged she referred to the day of Murdaugh's testimony as a "big day" and said to "pay attention." But she likened her comments to a "pep talk," which was not meant to indicate favor for one side or another, and she denied telling jurors to watch Murdaugh or his actions.

"Did you tell the jury," Waters asked, "not to be fooled by evidence presented by Mr. Murdaugh's attorneys?"

"I did not," Hill said.

"At any time, did you instruct the jury to watch him closely, and to look at his actions?"

"I did not."

"At any time as the jury moved to deliberate, did you tell the jury, this shouldn't take long?"

"No," Hill said.

The South Carolina Attorney General's Office, which led the prosecution against Murdaugh, has urged the courts to deny the motion. In the meantime, Murdaugh's appeal of his murder conviction has been suspended, pending the outcome of his quest for a new trial.

Three days have been set aside for the hearing, if needed. But the judge has said she hopes the entire proceeding will take just one full day.

Monday's hearing was briefly interrupted by the revelation jurors' phones had not been confiscated, and some jurors had watched Juror Z's testimony. Two acknowledged during questioning they watched part of the hearing on their cellphones prior to testifying, and a third acknowledged overhearing the proceedings on another juror's phone. But each said it would not impact their testimony.

WATCH: Dan Abram weighs in after judge denied Alex Murdaugh retrial

ABC News Chief Legal Analyst Dan Abrams weighs in after judge denied Alex Murdaugh a retrial but finds court clerk uncredible

Murdaugh's attorneys had indicated they also wanted to call alternate and dismissed jurors, as well as prosecutors and Judge Clifton Newman, who presided over the murder trial, as witnesses.

But Toal - who is overseeing Murdaugh's efforts for a new trial after Newman requested to be removed from post-trial developments - said Monday's hearing would have a "very focused scope," and witnesses would be limited to the 12 jurors who rendered the guilty verdict and Hill.

Motion for a new trial cited clerk's book

Hill acknowledged under cross-examination the morning before final arguments, she told someone if they were going to come see the trial, they should come that day because it would not take long for jurors to deliberate.

Hill did not derive the information from jurors, she told defense attorney Dick Harpootlian, calling it a "gut feeling," stemming from her years working as a court reporter and as the clerk of court.

"You just get to where you kind of see things happen as they progress," she said. "It's a guess, it's a gut feeling. And that's all I meant by that."

Murdaugh's attorneys first levied the jury tampering allegations against Hill last September, prompting South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to request an investigation by state law enforcement.

"Ms. Hill betrayed her oath of office for money and fame," said the motion, which cited at least three sworn affidavits, including one from a juror and another from a dismissed juror, as well as excerpts from her book, "Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders."

Under cross-examination, Hill said there was a "fleeting thought" before the trial she might write a book. But she didn't take any steps toward doing so before or during the trial, she said, adding she and her co-author did not begin collaborating until several weeks after its conclusion.

Harpootlian seized on the book while questioning Hill Monday, pressing her on allegations she made that members of the Murdaugh family had reputations as criminals. Hill "wouldn't know" if that was true, she said. Asked why she would write that without knowing it were true, Hill described the allegations as "poetic license."

Hill's co-author has also denied claims by Murdaugh's attorneys, telling CNN they did not have guarantees from any publisher when they set out to write the book and spent $30,000 of their own money.

"The fact is, there was no book deal coming her way or our way," said Neil R. Gordon, who did not meet Hill until after the trial was over.

Gordon has since accused her of plagiarism, and she has admitted - including during testimony Monday - their book included plagiarized passages she lifted from a reporter's draft article. Her attorneys, Justin Bamberg and Will Lewis, said in a statement Hill was "deeply remorseful," attributing the "unfortunate lapse in judgment" to "tight time deadlines."

The plagiarism was cited by Murdaugh's attorneys in a filing this month, saying her "credibility is the crux of the matter before the Court" and accusing her of misconduct aside from the alleged jury tampering.

In a statement this month, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed Hill is the subject of two open investigations, one "regarding her alleged interactions with" Murdaugh's jury, and the other "regarding allegations she used her elected position for personal gain."

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher and Maxime Tamsett reported from Columbia, South Carolina, while Dakin Andone reported and wrote this story in New York. CNN's Devon Sayers and Shawn Nottingham contributed to this report.

(The-CNN-Wire & 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)