Those who watched the double homicide trial of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh earlier this year will recall there was a “trial within a trial” during those six weeks in Walterboro, South Carolina. As prosecutors made their case that Murdaugh savagely killed his wife – 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh – and younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, they also argued his motivation was a “gathering storm” of consequences tied to more than a hundred financial crimes of which he currently stands accused.
In fact, this media outlet will be in Beaufort, S.C. this Thursday (September 14, 2023) as Murdaugh appears in court for a status conference on those charges.
At the conclusion of the “trial within a trial,” S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman ultimately agreed with prosecutors that Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes were central to their theory of motive – and allowed them to introduce relevant evidence and testimony. That decision is what likely prompted Murdaugh’s fateful decision to take the stand in his own defense.
I have long suspected Murdaugh’s appeal would focus on the controversial admissibility of this evidence and testimony – which it likely will.
Before we get there, though, our attention has shifted away from the “trial within a trial” to the “investigation within a trial,” namely the late-trial inquiries made by agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) related to the controversial dismissal of a pro-Murdaugh juror during closing arguments.
On the morning of March 2, 2023 – just hours before Murdaugh would be found guilty – Newman removed this pro-Murdaugh juror for allegedly having improper conversations with three individuals about the case. The juror then allegedly lied to Newman about these communications.
These allegedly improper communications were first reported to the court via an email from someone who worked with one of the jurors tenants at a Walterboro, S.C. pizza chain.
Following a two-day investigation, Newman decided to remove the juror “in order to protect the integrity of the process.”
“You have been by all accounts a great juror,” Newman said, telling her she had been “attentive to the case.”
Newman added he was “not suggesting you intentionally did anything wrong” – and thanked the juror for her service.
As she was preparing to leave the packed courtroom, Newman asked the juror whether she had anything remaining in the jury room.
“A dozen eggs,” she replied.
“A dozen eggs?” Newman responded, smiling.
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“You want to leave the eggs or take the eggs?” the judge asked the juror, who indicated her desire to take them.
“Mister bailiff: Can you retrieve from the jury room her dozen eggs?” Newman said.
Those gathered in the packed courtroom erupted in laughter, and in that moment, juror number 785 became known as the ‘egg juror.’
As I noted in my coverage of the verdict twelve hours later, the removal of the egg juror was decisive.
“She was dug in,” a source familiar with the jury deliberations confirmed at the time. “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.
Upon the occasion of her removal, Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian made it abundantly clear he was unhappy with the circumstances which led to Newman’s decision – specifically objecting to SLED’s involvement in the inquiries and its contact with two alleged witnesses to the juror’s purported misconduct.
“It’s important for me to note for the record that the interviews of these two people were done by SLED agents – one of whom was named as a witness in this case and the other who was listed in the notes as being one of the investigating officers,” Harpootlian said. “Just to note that again SLED has made another bad judgment in this case. I’m not excepting from your ruling, I’m just pointing out that this is just a continuum of a calamity of errors.”
Newman responded that he had not had any discussion “with any SLED agents” about the juror’s removal, and that “all of the inquiry by the court has been directly with the suspected parties involved – and with the juror.”
Well … and with state prosecutors (who were working closely with SLED) and with Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill, who now finds herself at the very center of the scandal involving the egg juror.
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Our research director Jenn Wood did a deep dive into this saga over the weekend after the egg juror’s sworn affidavit (.pdf) was featured prominently in a bombshell motion filed by Harpootlian and fellow Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin. That motion alleged extensive jury tampering on Hill’s part – and accused her of participating in an alleged conspiracy to have the “egg juror” removed so the prosecution could secure a guilty verdict.
The defense motion (.pdf) seeks a new trial for Murdaugh on the basis of these allegations.
SLED is currently investigating the allegations of jury tampering against Hill – an inquiry Harpootlian has strongly suggested is more of a cover-up than a search for the truth. In fact, Harpootlian has demanded SLED “stand down,” and called on the office of U.S. attorney Adair Ford Boroughs to take over the case. The basis of his argument? That SLED – and the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson – cannot objectively probe allegations of jury tampering in this case given their vested interest in the outcome of the ‘Trial of the Century.’
SLED and the attorney general’s office refuted that assertion in a statement released late last week.
“The state’s only vested interest is seeking the truth,” the statement (.pdf) noted. “As with all investigations, SLED and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office are committed to a fair and impartial investigation and will continue to follow the facts wherever they lead.”
In an effort to ensure that is what is transpiring – and to hold the investigators and prosecutors in this case accountable – our media outlet has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to SLED seeking “copies of all investigative files relating to the dismissal of juror #785 from the trial of Alex Murdaugh on March 2, 2023.”
Specifically, our FOIA sought “the email from the co-worker of the juror’s tenants, signed affidavits of tenants, transcripts and audio/video recordings of interviews conducted of tenants by SLED agents, and transcript of in camera questioning relating to the affidavits.”
Since all of these investigatory materials were used in the context of a public trial, they should be immediately available for inspection. In other words, because this part of the inquiry was indeed an “investigation within a trial,” there should be no reason for SLED to cite a “pending investigation” exemption in denying our FOIA.
Stay tuned for more on this developing story as it continues to unfold …
THE FOIA …
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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