Attorneys representing convicted killer Alex Murdaugh filed a bombshell motion with the South Carolina court of appeals on Tuesday morning demanding a new trial for their client on the basis of alleged jury tampering by Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill.
Murdaugh’s attorneys also referred Hill to the office of U.S. attorney Adair Ford Boroughs for potential criminal charges – which could open the door to a federal investigation of the Murdaugh trial itself and the possible overturning of his conviction at the federal level based on constitutional violations.
“I write to request an urgent federal investigation of conduct by a South Carolina elected official,” Murdaugh’s attorneys – state senator Dick Harpootlian – wrote in a letter to Boroughs. “I request that federal law enforcement investigate whether Ms. Hill and any other state actor violated (federal law) by tampering with the Colleton County jury.”
According to the letter (.pdf), the case should be handed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) because its agents “will not attempt to direct the outcome of any investigation by pressuring or deceiving any juror or other witness” and because “no juror will attempt to deceive an FBI agent.”
By contrast, Harpootlian asserted the “same cannot be said of any investigation” conducted by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which he claimed had “a vested interest in upholding Mr. Murdaugh’s conviction.”
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The complaint (.pdf) filed with the appeals court by Harpootlian and veteran criminal defense lawyer Jim Griffin claimed Hill’s alleged conduct violated “Murdaugh’s constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury.”
“The clerk of court tampered with the jury by advising them not to believe Murdaugh’s testimony and other evidence presented by the defense, pressuring them to reach a quick guilty verdict, and even misrepresenting critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favorable to the defense,” the complaint alleged.
Specifically, the filing claimed Hill told jurors “not to be ‘misled’ by evidence” presented in Murdaugh’s defense” – and “not to be ‘fooled by’ Murdaugh’s testimony in his own defense.”
During Murdaugh’s testimony, Hill allegedly instructed the jury to “watch him closely,” to “look at his actions” and to “look at his movements.” One juror indicated this led them to understand “that Murdaugh was guilty.”
“I understood (this) to mean that Mr. Murdaugh would lie when he testified,” the juror wrote in an affidavit attached to the complaint.
This same juror – No. 630 – also complained about being pressured to convict Murdaugh despite having misgivings about the case against him.
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“I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by the other jurors,” the juror wrote in the affidavit.
The complaint further claimed Hill had “frequent private conversations with the jury foreperson,” and also allegedly “asked jurors for their opinions about Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence.” Hill is further alleged to have “invented a story about a Facebook post to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty.”
This is a reference to the infamous “egg juror” – No. 785 – who was dismissed during closing arguments over a Facebook post attributed to her ex-husband which accused her of getting drunk and expressing her opinions regarding Murdaugh’s innocence.
The juror denied making the comments in question and “stated she wanted to hear closing arguments before forming an opinion on Murdaugh’s guilty or innocence.”
Also, it was later revealed her ex-husband did not write the Facebook post – because it did not exist.
“She made it up,” Harpootlian and Griffin alleged in their filing.
Juror No. 785’s affidavit – attached to the complaint – confirmed she asked Hill to show her the original Facebook post but she “would not or could not show it to me.”
“I have never seen it, and, to my knowledge, no one has,” the juror added.
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Judge Clifton Newman, who received international acclaim for his handling of the trial, investigated the allegations against the “egg juror” on the morning of the verdicts and ultimately decided to remove her and replace her with an alternate. As I noted in my coverage of the verdict, that decision was integral in securing Murdaugh’s conviction.
“She was dug in,” a source familiar with the deliberations confirmed to me on the evening of the verdicts. “She said he was ‘not guilty’ and there was nothing anyone could do to change her mind.”
“She would have hung the jury,” another source confirmed.
Newman made it clear he was conflicted in deciding to dismiss the juror.
“You have been by all accounts a great juror,” he told her, adding he was “not suggesting you intentionally did anything wrong.”
Newman did, however, express his unhappiness with Hill regarding her interaction with this juror.
“I’m not too pleased about the clerk interrogating a juror as opposed to coming to me and bringing it to me,” he said.
As the trial approach its pivotal moment, Hill allegedly “pressured jurors to reach a quick verdict, telling them from the outset of their deliberations that it ‘shouldn’t take them long.'”
Hill’s alleged motive for the aforementioned conduct? “To secure for herself a book deal and media appearances that would not happen in the event of a mistrial.”
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In fact, one of the affidavits attached to the filing – from Harpootlian’s paralegal, Holli Miller – claimed a juror told her that Hill “passed out business cards from the media to jurors” during their deliberations saying “the media would want to interview jurors at the end of the trial.”
“Mrs. Hill told jurors that after the trial they would be famous,” the complaint alleged.
Hill accompanied three jurors on a trip to New York City in the aftermath of the trial for an exclusive appearance on NBC’s Today show. Her book – Behind The Doors Of Justice – was released on August 1, 2023. It was reviewed by this author on July 31, 2023.
“Hill betrayed her oath of office for money and fame,” the complaint alleged. “Once these facts are proven, the law does not allow the court any discretion about how to respond. It must grant a new trial.”
Hill was not immediately available to respond to the ruling. She did say a response to the motion from her attorney was forthcoming. In the weeks leading up to the filing of this complaint, sources close to the clerk have indicated she is a victim of a political “hatchet job” which included “false allegations” tied to the Murdaugh trial.
“They are smearing Miss Becky to get this evil man a new trial,” one of Hill’s advocates at the court told me, referring to the allegations of jury tampering as “lies – nasty lies.”
Meanwhile, S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson – whose office secured the convictions and has ten days to respond to the defense filing in court – declined to comment on the allegations.
“We are currently reviewing the defense’s latest motion and will respond through the legal process at the appropriate time,” Wilson said in a statement from his office.
What happens now?
The motion seeks a stay of Murdaugh’s appeal – which would presumably allow the trial judge (Newman) to consider the motion and decide whether to grant the defense’s request for a new trial.
Future motions related to Newman could be forthcoming, however.
“The defense has not indicated how and when they will address possible recusal of Newman,” Azari wrote. “I can’t imagine that’s not a concern they won’t address.”
Why would Newman need to recuse himself?
Since the conclusion of the trial, the judge has made several comments which some have suggested are indicative of a potential lack of objectivity related to Murdaugh.
“I don’t believe that he hated his wife, and certainly I did not believe that he did not love his son, but he committed an unforgivable, unimaginable crime, and there’s no way that he’ll be able to sleep peacefully given those facts,” the judge said during remarks at his alma mater, Cleveland State University, following the trial.
Perhaps more importantly, Newman is now a potential fact witness in a federal investigation related to the allegations against Hill – as well as a potential fact witness regarding the controversially decisive dismissal of the “egg juror.”
Also, Newman is retiring from the bench in a little more than four months – further complicating the timing of these deliberations.
Murdaugh, 55, a disbarred attorney and alleged fraudster from Hampton, S.C., was found guilty of the graphic 2021 murders of his wife – 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh – and younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, at the conclusion of a six-week trial in Walterboro, S.C.
The proceedings attracted international attention given the gruesomeness of the crimes – and given Murdaugh’s status as a member of the once-powerful “House of Murdaugh,” a family which ran the Palmetto Lowcountry like a fiefdom for nearly a century. Three Murdaughs held the post of S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor between 1920-2006 – and Murdaugh himself was a badge-carrying assistant solicitor at the time of the murders.
The jury deliberated for only a few hours before returning its verdict: Guilty on all counts.
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Did Hill put her thumb on the scale in an attempt to influence that decision, though? Worse still, did she manipulate the composition of the jury to achieve the desired outcome?
“Toward the end of the trial, Mrs. Hill came into the jury room a lot,” one juror wrote in an affidavit attached to the complaint.
Hill was also accused of segregating the jury in separate rooms – and attempting to rush a verdict by denying several jurors the smoke breaks they had been afforded throughout the trial. She also allegedly attempted to rush jurors by telling them they would have to spend the night in a hotel if they didn’t return a verdict that evening.
“In a six-week trial, people will talk when they should not,” the complaint noted. “They will say things they should not say. Mistakes will be made. The participants in a trial are fallible human beings. Lawyers combing the proceedings after the fact will always find they made mistakes and errors. If that were enough to force a redo of the trial, no verdict would stand, and trials would be repeated forever. To avoid that, courts properly strain to find that mistakes made during trial are ‘harmless,’ meaning they did not change the result.”
“The issues now before the court are not the ordinary and inevitable mistakes that occur in any trial,” the pleading added. “The issue here is that an elected state official engaged in intentional misconduct – deliberately violating a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial before an impartial jury – to secure financial gain for herself.”
Instead of making “honest mistakes,” Harpootlian and Griffin’s complaint said Hill “asked jurors their opinions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilty or innocence, instructed them not to believe evidence presented in Mr. Murdaugh’s defense (including his own testimony), lied to the judge to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty and pressured jurors to reach a guilty verdict quickly so she could profit from it.”
UPDATE | Murdaugh attorneys’ press conference …
THE MOTION …
(Via: S.C. Court of Appeals)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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