Convicted killer Alex Murdaugh lost his double homicide trial on February 6, 2023. Sure, it would take another four weeks for a Colleton County, South Carolina jury to find him guilty, but that was the day he lost the case. On that day, S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman ruled a veritable cavalcade of evidence and testimony related to Murdaugh’s since-acknowledged financial crimes admissible in the murder trial.
“This evidence is admissible,” Newman said from the bench, arguing the evidence was “more probative than prejudicial” and would “aid the jury in understanding the context in which the crime occurred.”
Did it ever …
At the time he stood trial for the graphic killings of his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and youngest son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh was staring down 99 individual charges related to “schemes to defraud victims” of nearly $10 million.
He is now facing more than 100 state financial charges – and is scheduled to stand trial on the first batch of those charges later this month in Beaufort, S.C. Those trials are expected to go swimmingly for the state considering Murdaugh admitted most of the financial misdeeds while testifying under oath at his murder trial. He has also pleaded guilty to nearly two dozen financial crimes at the federal level.
Should the evidence of these crimes have been allowed into the double homicide trial, though?
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South Carolina’s rules of criminal procedure expressly provide that evidence of “other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person.” However, this rule – Rule 404 – does allow “prior bad acts” to be admitted in order “to show motive, identity, the existence of a common scheme or plan, the absence of mistake or accident, or intent.”
The state argued Murdaugh was motivated to kill his wife and son because he was about to be exposed as a financial fraud – and for several weeks in Walterboro, S.C. they conducted a “trial within a trial” related to this evidence.
As I noted at the time, “if (the trial within a trial) – a preview of potential testimony the jury could hear in the days to come – is any indication of where this trial is going, the defense is in serious trouble.”
Which it was …
Specifically referring to damning testimony from Murdaugh’s former law firm financial officer, Jeanne Seckinger, and his childhood friend, attorney Chris Wilson, I noted at the time that “if jurors hear substantive testimony like that from either of these two witnesses, Murdaugh could be finished.“
Which he was …
Given the decisive impact of this evidence and testimony, it is only natural that Newman’s decisions are now coming under scrutiny – especially as Murdaugh’s attorneys are asking the S.C. supreme court to disqualify the judge from further involvement in the case.
In a written ruling (.pdf) accompanying his admissibility decision on February 6, 2023, Newman concluded the financial crimes evidence was relevant “as it tends to support the contention of the state that (Murdaugh) sought to divert attention from the looming exposure of theft, fraud and deceit that he committed against his clients, friends, family, law firm and business associates.”
“The state is entitled to have the jury consider whether the apparent desperation of (Murdaugh) resulted in the commission of the crimes alleged,” he noted.
Furthermore, Newman argued the defense “opened the door” to this evidence and testimony being admitted when it allegedly sought to have prosecution witnesses serve as character references for Murdaugh. Accordingly, Newman overruled an objection from Murdaugh’s attorneys related to Rule 403 of the South Carolina rules of criminal procedure.
Rule 403 holds that relevant evidence “may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.” The rule also allows for the exclusion of evidence resulting in “undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”
According to Newman – who allowed repetitive recapitulations of Murdaugh’s myriad fraudulent schemes to be laid out before the jury ad nauseam – this evidence and testimony was not unfairly confusing or misleading to them. Specifically, it did “not suggest to the jury that (Murdaugh) has a tendency to commit murder” and would “not lure the jury into declaring guilt on a ground different than the specific charges of murder.”
Maybe not – but Newman’s decisions clearly changed the complexion of the case.
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Murdaugh’s attorneys – Dick Harpootlian, Jim Griffin, Phillip Barber and Margaret Fox – have argued those admissibility decisions were central to the prosecution’s successful bid to conflate the circumstantial murder charges with Murdaugh’s demonstrable financial misconduct. Had none of the financial crime allegations been introduced, it’s unlikely Murdaugh would have taken the fateful step of taking the witness stand in his own defense – which, our audience will recall, he did against the advice of his counsel.
Obviously, Murdaugh’s testimony was a definitional example of a defendant digging his own grave – as lead prosecutor Creighton Waters masterfully maneuvered Murdaugh into a corner using nothing but the defendant’s own words.
Had the financial crimes information not come into play, its doubtful Murdaugh would have testified.
To be clear: I had no issue with Newman’s rulings. I believe he conducted a thoughtful review of the evidence and testimony and reached a determination based on the law and the facts. Furthermore, the defense did open the door to at least some discussion of the prosecution’s theory of motive.
But did Newman allow too much in? That point is certainly debatable … assuming the debate is had.
These admissibility rulings are expected to form the basis of Murdaugh’s appeal of his murder convictions – and the ensuing life sentences Newman handed down. For the moment, though, the appeals process has been paused pending a hearing on claims of jury tampering leveled against Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill. Hill has denied those allegations, and early indicators point to there being some substance to her denials. In fact, as this story was going to press Hill supplied the state with a sworn affidavit (.pdf) providing point-by-point refutations of the allegations against her.
According to several well-placed sources within the Palmetto State judiciary, the “pause” of Murdaugh’s appeal has been a welcome development.
“They don’t want to rule on the admissibility questions,” one source familiar with the situation told us.
Wait … what?
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According to our sources, the jury tampering allegations against Hill – and Murdaugh’s request for a new trial on those grounds – could potentially make moot all of the admissibility questions raised by Newman’s rulings during the trial. Which is exactly what the the state’s two highest courts are hoping will happen.
In other words, if Murdaugh is granted a new trial on the basis of alleged jury tampering – South Carolina’s court of appeals and its supreme court would be spared from having to issue rulings on whether to uphold or overturn these decisions.
“No one wants that fight,” a source close to the appellate court told us. “No one wants these rulings as precedent. But no one wants to smack down Clifton Newman, either.”
A public defender following the Murdaugh case spoke at length with me on background about the potential fallout from Newman’s rulings being upheld.
“The constitutional protections enshrined in (Rules) 403 and 404(b) would be gutted,” the defender said. “The doctrine of prior bad acts being disqualified as a means of establishing criminal propensity would be obliterated. The right to a fair trial in South Carolina would cease to exist.”
“Alex Murdaugh’s reprehensibility notwithstanding, it is incumbent upon officers of the court to consider the implications to the system for all criminal defendants raised by these rulings,” the defender added.
The jury tampering allegations against Hill – and Newman’s status as potential witness to them – give the higher courts a clear and compelling “out” to avoid having to address those “implications,” which even prosecutors have acknowledged could “rewrite case law on 403 and 404(b) in South Carolina for decades to come.”
Will the high court avail itself of this “out?”
We could get a sense of the justices’ thinking sooner rather than later …
The court is expected to decide soon whether to put all Murdaugh-related cases on hold pending a decision regarding Newman’s status. Shortly thereafter, it must decide whether to allow Newman to continue on as a trier of fact in multiple Murdaugh matters (which I have previously argued he should not do).
A decision to take Newman off the case and appoint another judge to hear the jury tampering allegations would seem to be a clear indicator the court is inclined to steer clear of the admissibility questions inherent in the Murdaugh appeal – although there is no guarantee a new judge would grant the notorious defendant a new trial.
Count on this news outlet to not only keep our audience in the loop on the latest developments in this case … but to provide the sort of background analysis critical to understanding those developments.
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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