South Carolina circuit court judge Clifton Newman defined integrity while presiding over convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s double homicide trial in Walterboro, S.C. earlier this year. Now he must define it again by foregoing any further involvement in Murdaugh’s murder case – or the various financial crimes trials tied to this disgraced former lawyer.
That’s right: Newman must recuse himself from all Murdaugh matters … and do so sooner rather than later.
Wait … what?
Indulge me a moment as I elaborate upon this bold and controversial assertion.
(Click to view)
The Murdaugh case officially landed back in Newman’s lap last week after attorneys for the Palmetto State’s most notorious criminal filed a motion Friday morning (October 27, 2023). That motion sought a new trial for Murdaugh based on jury tampering allegations previously leveled against Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill. It came a little over a week after the S.C. court of appeals sent this case back to the circuit court for the expressed purpose of investigating the merits of those allegations.
Newman is likely a fact witness to the alleged jury tampering… but that’s not the reason he should stand aside.
Since the conclusion of the trial – including during Murdaugh’s sentencing hearing on March 3, 2023 – the 71-year-old judge (who is scheduled to retire at the end of the year) has repeatedly expressed his opinion of this defendant.
In other words, he has expressed his bias … stating for the record his lack of objectivity for any future proceedings.
Ordinarily, that’s not a big deal. After all, Newman didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t voice his views on Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence until after the trial was over and the matter was out of his hands. And let’s be honest – he didn’t say anything about Murdaugh the defendant didn’t deserve to hear (or anything the rest of us weren’t already thinking). If anything, Newman was dispassionate and deferential in delivering his views – a gentleman to the core.
But deliver those views he did.
After a six-week trial earlier this year, it took less than three hours for jurors to find Murdaugh guilty of the murders of his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, and younger son Paul Murdaugh. On March 3, 2023, Newman sentenced Murdaugh to life in prison for those crimes – prompting a near immediate notification from the defense team (consisting of Dick Harpootlian, Jim Griffin, Phillip Barber and Margaret Fox) that Murdaugh would be filing to appeal his convictions.
“You’ve engaged in such duplicitous conduct – including here in the courtroom and on the witness stand,” Newman rightfully chided Murdaugh during his sentencing hearing.
In an especially chilling moment, Newman suggested Murdaugh’s dreams would be haunted by his victims “in the nighttime when you are attempting to go to sleep.”
“I am sure they will come and visit you,” Newman said.
Newman affirmed his belief that Murdaugh’s victims would haunt him during a June 21, 2023 interview with Craig Melvin for NBC’s Today show.
“Oh, I think so,” he said. “It has to be. I cannot imagine him having a peaceful night knowing what he did.”
(Click to view)
In the weeks following the trial, Newman traveled to his alma mater, Cleveland State University, where he made additional comments attesting to Murdaugh’s guilt.
“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 his remarks at Cleveland State.
Again, nothing in those comments is inaccurate – at least not from my perspective. And certainly nothing in those comments is in any way, shape or form out of line. Were this case proceeding down the normal appeals track, nothing in those comments would be cause for concern – because if this case were proceeding down the normal appeals track, it would be out of Newman’s hands.
He wouldn’t be in a position of finding fact and issuing rulings related to Murdaugh’s fate …
Ordinarily, at this point it would be up to the nine members of the court of appeals – and then the five justices of the S.C. supreme court – to weigh in on validity of Murdaugh’s convictions. And eventually, they will.
But this case is not proceeding down the normal appeals track. Instead, it is careening back into Newman’s lap – and it is abundantly clear based on these remarks that the judge is not an impartial party, but rather an invested party.
Murdaugh’s lawyers have not asked for Newman to recuse himself. And maybe they won’t. I have no idea what their plan is moving forward. Certainly challenging Newman publicly would be hugely unpopular – a major public relations risk. The judge is beloved across the Palmetto State – and across the nation. And with good reason. As Brother Ali once sang, he has “earned them accolades.”
RELATED | SHOULD JAIL HOUSE CALLS BE RELEASED?
I also have no idea what Newman’s plans are when it comes to presiding (or not presiding) over the forthcoming “evidentiary hearing” on the jury tampering allegations raised in Murdaugh’s latest motion before the circuit court. Perhaps he is planning to stand aside of his own volition based on his potential status as a witness to the misconduct alleged therein. Perhaps not.
Again, though, to me that is not the issue. Given his status as someone who has now clearly articulated his views on the matter – thus creating for himself a stake in the outcome of this hearing – surely Newman must see he can no longer sit impartially in judgment of Murdaugh.
I do not write this column because I question Newman’s integrity. I write it, in fact, because I appreciate it – admire it – and would hate to see anything needlessly detract from it. I am sure some people will try to mischaracterize this as some sort of rebuke or repudiation of the judge, but such conflation is demonstrably disingenuous. Having been in the courtroom for the duration of the six-week double homicide trial – and having covered all of its pre-trial motions and post-trial press conferences and status hearings – my admiration for Newman is widely known (and has been consistently and effusively expressed).
Indeed, I often wrote how his handling of this case was single-handedly restoring the public’s faith and trust in South Carolina’s badly broken system of justice.
Well, now it’s time for Newman to restore that faith and trust once again … by doing the right thing and recusing himself from further rulings related to this case.
What do you think? Vote in our poll and post your thoughts in our always engaging comments section below … also, be on the lookout for another column in the coming days tied to the Murdaugh appeal that could prove even more controversial than this one.
Should S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman recuse himself from further matters involving convicted killer Alex Murdaugh?
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.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.