Creighton Waters, a prosecutor for the S.C. Attorney General’s office points at Alex Murdaugh in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier/Pool
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Murdaugh Retrial Hearing: Prosecutors File Their Brief

“Not a single juror who actually deliberated on the case indicates that their deliberations or verdict was in any way affected by the improper contacts …”

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Prosecutors in the office of South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson filed a brief with the state supreme court this week – countering a detailed argument submitted yesterday by attorneys for Alex Murdaugh, one of the most notorious convicted killers in South Carolina history. A disgraced, disbarred lawyer and scion of one of the Palmetto State’s most powerful legal dynasties, Murdaugh is seeking a new trial after a Colleton County jury found him guilty of murdering his wife and younger son.

Both the prosecution and defense have now submitted filings ahead of a public status conference scheduled for Tuesday, January 16, 2024 in front of former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal.

That conference will be followed by a highly anticipated retrial hearing scheduled to begin on Monday, January 29, 2024 – also in front of Toal. Both will be held at the Richland County courthouse in downtown Columbia, S.C., according to a scheduling order (.pdf) issued by the veteran justice.

Toal – who led the Palmetto State’s high court from 2000-2015 – was appointed to hear the Murdaugh matter last month by her successor, Donald Beatty. The current chief justice tapped Toal for the job after judge Clifton Newman – who presided over Murdaugh’s double homicide trial – recused himself from hearing further motions related to the case. Newman stepped down because he is a potential fact witness to jury tampering allegations involving Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill – whose office oversaw the administration of the trial.

Following a six-week, internationally watched spectacle dubbed the “Trial of the Century” in South Carolina, Murdaugh was convicted on March 2, 2023 of killing his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, at the family’s hunting property near Islandton, S.C. The following day – March 3, 2023 – he was sentenced to consecutive life terms for those crimes by Newman.

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Those sentences are now in jeopardy after Hill was accused of tampering with the jury – ostensibly in order to sell copies of her book, Behind the Doors of Justice. These allegations were made in a bombshell motion originally submitted by Murdaugh’s lawyers last September.

Murdaugh’s attorneys have maintained that because Hill was an officer of the court, any improper communication from her to jurors must result in a new trial.

“If Mr. Murdaugh proves that (Hill) engaged in surreptitious advocacy on the merits during trial, there is nothing for the state to rebut,” attorneys Dick HarpootlianJim GriffinPhillip Barber and Margaret Fox argued in their brief (.pdf) ahead of the hearing. “A new trial is required.”

The state is aggressively pushing back against that contention, arguing Murdaugh must prove not only that tampering occurred – but that at least one juror was “actually prejudiced” as a result of it. According to prosecutors’ brief (.pdf), Murdaugh “carries the burden of proving both that an improper contact occurred with the jury and that he was actually prejudiced thereby.”

Can he do that? Not according to them …

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Alex Murdaugh is cross examined by prosecutor Creighton Waters after taking the stand in his trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Friday, February 24, 2023. Joshua Boucher/The State/Pool

“Not a single juror who actually deliberated on the case indicates that their deliberations or verdict was in any way affected by the improper contacts alleged,” state attorneys argued. “The jurors were polled individually and affirmed their verdicts on the record.”

In their brief, the attorneys noted there is only one affidavit from a deliberating juror which “attributes statements to Clerk Hill which resemble arguments made by the state, but she does not claim she was influenced by Clerk Hill, but rather merely felt pressure from other jurors.”

“Due process is not implicated by pressure upon one juror by other jurors,” prosecutors noted.

If an evidentiary hearing is deemed necessary, Wilson’s prosecutors believe the questioning of jurors should be limited to the following two interrogatories:

  1. On March 2, 2023, did you answer when polled that your verdict was guilty on each of the charges?
  2. As you were instructed to do by Judge Newman, was your verdict on March 2, 2023 based solely on the testimony, evidence, law, and arguments of counsel as presented at the trial?

The defense also wants to limit questioning of jurors, arguing the only relevant subject for juror examinations is whether Hill made “improper communications on the merits of the case, including anything serving to corroborate or refute testimony on that subject.”

Murdaugh’s attorneys indicated they plan on identifying the trial transcript and exhibits from trial for use at the evidentiary hearing – but were still awaiting discovery from the state prior to providing the court with an exhaustive list of witnesses and exhibits. Sources in the attorney general’s office told us late Thursday the defense had been provided with this information.

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RELATED | EGG JUROR CONSPIRACY DEEPENS

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Prosecutors indicated a desire to limit exhibits to those which were part of the record the transcript of the trial, which in particular included “Judge Newman’s repeated instructions to the jury to base their decision solely on the evidence, the in camera hearings regarding the removal of Juror 785, and the jury’s verdict and affirmation upon polling.”

Jury 785, of course, is the famed “egg juror” – whose controversial removal from the deliberating panel under questionable circumstances ultimately paved the way to the guilty verdicts. According to Murdaugh’s attorneys, Hill was instrumental in the egg juror’s dismissal.

In the defense brief, the question was raised whether Hill would invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself – thus dealing a potentially fatal blow to the state’s position that Murdaugh does not deserve a new trial.

Interestingly, the state’s brief makes no mention of any possible testimony from Hill.

In addition to its brief refuting Murdaugh’s lawyers, prosecutors in Wilson’s office also filed a proposed protective order (.pdf) and proposed order for reciprocal discovery (.pdf).

In addition to a scheduling order, justice Toal also issued ground rules for members of the media (.pdf) covering the hearing. She also appointed retired law professor and famed First Amendment advocate Jay Bender as the media liaison – reprising his role from the trial. Bender – who has years of experience litigating public records access cases – has once again assumed this role in a voluntary capacity.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

J Doe January 4, 2024 at 10:39 pm

Why does the link for Jenn’s name go to a nonexistent Twitter account with the handle @IndyJenn_?

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