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Murdaugh Status Conference: Jean Toal Slams Door On The Defense

Alex Murdaugh may not be getting a new trial after all …

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It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain,” Irish rock star Bono crooned on U2’s ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.’

Well, attorneys for disbarred, disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh are no doubt going crazy as they suddenly stare down a mountain, not a hill, in their bid to get a new trial for the Palmetto State’s most notorious convicted killer.

In an impactful status conference held in downtown Columbia, S.C. at the Richland County courthouse, former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal delivered several critical blows to Murdaugh and his lead attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin. Harpootlian and Griffin are seeking a new trial for their client on the basis of seismic jury tampering allegations leveled last September against Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill.

Hill, incidentally, is the focus of multiple ongoing ethics and criminal investigations related to her conduct both during and after the Murdaugh trial – which captivated international audiences for six weeks last winter in Walterboro, S.C.

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Her credibility seemed as though it would be at the center of the upcoming hearing – until Toal radically reoriented the focus of the upcoming proceedings.

First and most significantly, Toal ruled against the defense regarding the standard of proof it must present at the retrial hearing – which is scheduled to begin on January 29, 2024. Harpootlian and Griffin had argued the law merely required them to prove improper contact with jurors had occurred – a standard ensconced in federal law and a 1993 case, State v. Cameron. According to Toal, she will rule instead based on the standard adopted in State v. Green, a 2020 ruling in which the court refused to overturn a guilty verdict after a bailiff had improper contact with a juror.

“Prejudice is presumed under the circumstances,” Griffin told the chief justice in invoking Cameron.

“Prejudice must be proved, not presumed,” Toal fired back. “For the purposes of what the defendant must show, the presumption – simply by the contact, which we don’t have any sworn evidence about … is not the way to examine this issue but rather specific evidence of what was said, when it was said and how it impacted the jury.”

“That is the approach I will take,” she added.

(Click to View)

Prosecuting attorney Creighton Waters, left, and defense attorney Dick Harpootlian confer prior to an evidentiary hearing at the Richland County Courthouse in downtown Columbia, S.C. on Tuesday January 16, 2024. (Tracy Glantz The State, Pool).

Harpootlian and Griffin argued vigorously that the improper contact by the bailiff in the Green case involved a procedural matter, whereas Hill’s alleged tampering went to the very merits of the case. In doing so, they echoed a distinction made in the original case, in which the court found the bailiff’s improper contact with the jury “did not touch the merits, but dealt only with the procedural question of how the judge might handle a jury impasse that apparently never materialized.”

Nonetheless, Toal said the standard that prejudice most be proved would be her guide during the upcoming hearing.

In addition to ruling against the defense on the standard of proof, Toal also made it clear she was not going to permit the upcoming hearing to turn into a trial of Hill.

“That is not what this inquiry is about,” she said.

Specifically, Toal indicated her intention to limit the witness list to the twelve jurors who deliberated – and to the embattled clerk of court. That would seem to exclude the testimony of an alternate juror and the famed “egg juror,” who was allegedly removed from the panel as a result of a conspiracy involving Hill.

Harpootlian strongly protested this decision, arguing the other witnesses could attest to alleged tampering which “infected” the jury.

“I don’t understand how that can’t be relevant,” he said.

Toal was having none of it, saying she saw “no necessity” to expand questioning beyond “what the clerk said to the (deliberating) jurors.”

(Click to View)

Alex Murdaugh attends a status conference related to jury-tampering allegations against Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill at the Richland County courthouse in downtown Columbia, S.C. on Tuesday, January 16, 2024. (Gavin McIntyre/The Post and Courier/Pool)

“At the present time, I see nothing that prompts me to have people who did not sit on the case talk about what the clerk said to those who did – when I’ve got the direct people to whom it was said that I will question,” she said.

Toal also made it clear that she – not the attorneys – would question the individual jurors. And that this questioning would be done in open court, on the record – with members of the media adopting the same considerations regarding the anonymity of jurors as was adopted at the original trial.

“I will be doing the questioning of the jurors,” she said, adding that her questions would be limited to “whether improper contact was made with them – and whether it affected their verdict.”

Toal said she understood the defense wanted to use other questions “as a means of further attacking the clerk and her testimony,” noting that “there’s a whole lot more that Mr. Harpootlian would like to explore that I believe to be wholly irrelevant.” 

In another blow for the defense, Toal indicated allegations of misconduct raised against Hill in the aftermath of the trial that were unrelated to the tampering allegations would not factor into her questioning – and that she would be drawing a clear distinction between the “clerk’s conduct at the time” versus her conduct since the trial.

“I can tell you that I am very, very reluctant to turn this hearing into a wholesale exploration of every piece of conduct by the clerk alleged to have been improper on its own, indicative of characteristics of her,” she said. “This is a very focused inquiry that deals with this jury and what impact contact – if any – had on this jury (and) “Its ability to render the verdict it rendered in an impartial manner.”

Toal added that Murdaugh’s retrial hearing “is not the time to explore every mistake, or incorrect statement or false statement made by (Hill).”

“I don’t think it’s necessary, nor do I think it’s proper, to explore each and every impropriety alleged to have been committed by the clerk,” she said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

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 and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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25 comments

Goody3 Top fan January 16, 2024 at 4:01 pm

WOW! What a tour de force from Mme. Chief Justice!! This lady knows EXACTLY what she wants to hear and doesn’t want to hear in order to reach her conclusion(s) and ruling(s). She drew up her game plan and will stick to it with fidelity I’m sure.

I’m with FITS (Will, Dylan & Jenn) – H&G have their work cut out.

And a second trial for AM is now pretty-much a pipe-dream.

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SC Queen Of Corruption January 16, 2024 at 5:33 pm

Prosecution must have bought Hugh Leatherman-In-Drag a case of Old Grandad.

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Goody3 Top fan January 16, 2024 at 7:53 pm

OUCH! SC Queen. That comment is both uncalled-for AND unkind. “Let him {her} without sin cast the first stone” to paraphrase John 8:7. ‘Nuff said.

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SC Queen Of Corruption January 17, 2024 at 2:45 am

No, it was called for. She is a corrupt old drunk who created much upheaval in courts and courthouses when she was Chief Justice.

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Nancy Bryson Top fan January 17, 2024 at 12:09 pm

No, it was ugly, vindictive and totally irrelevant. Says more about you than it does about Judge Toal. I hope I look so good when and if I make it to 80.

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SMH January 22, 2024 at 1:12 pm

Why so angry and defensive? The old bat suffers from organic brain syndrome And most all senior members of the SC bar know she is an alcoholic

gotcha! January 21, 2024 at 8:56 am

up yours.

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gotcha! January 21, 2024 at 9:16 am

i meant the comment ”up yours” for SC QUEEN OF CORRUPTION..

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The Colonel Top fan January 16, 2024 at 5:48 pm

Wow, I never much cared for her honor when she was active but she may change my mind.

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Kimberly Berry Top fan January 16, 2024 at 6:03 pm

I strongly believe that the events surrounding the “egg juror” are extremely relevant to the jury tampering charges.

First, upon learning that this juror was leaning toward a not guilty vote, Becky fabricated a Facebook post in an attempt to have this juror dismissed.

When that didn’t work, a second attempt in the form of a suspicious email from a co-worker of one of Ms Hills tenants, claimed that the egg juror was speaking about the trial during the delivery of a refrigerator. The tenants themselves have come forward to say that the events as they occurred were misstated by SLED. This event was that which resulted in the juror ultimately being removed as Ms Hill desired.

These events themselves must be investigated as there is a very high likelihood that the jury tampering extends to Ms Hills desire to have a juror favorable to Mr Murdaugh removed from the jury.

Perhaps Mr Harpootlian and Mr Griffith need to present this in a different way as an event on its own, but either way, I can’t believe that this is not considered relevant. Everything surrounding the egg jurors removal is suspicious.

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VERITAS Top fan January 16, 2024 at 6:37 pm

You say, “Becky fabricated a Facebook post in an attempt to have this juror dismissed.” Please direct the rest of us to your “evidence” that this is true. How irresponsible you are for saying such gossip and slander without backing it up.

And try to keep up with other facts … it’s Mr. Griffin, not Mr. Griffith.

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B B BROCKMAN Top fan January 17, 2024 at 9:57 am

You must have watched way too much, Perry Mason, Matlock, or LA Law. This is real law, not a Hollywood writers law. Besides, even if “Alex” got a new trial, he would still be found “guilty” as Sin, by any jury with an ounce of common sense!

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gotcha! January 21, 2024 at 8:54 am

GOODY3,, UP YOURS!

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VERITAS Top fan January 16, 2024 at 6:51 pm

So pleased with Judges Newman and Toal for standing up to the antics of the Griff, Harpo and Murdaugh circus show, costing South Carolina taxpayers millions. Murdaugh will go on to appeal … let him have it. The overwhelming evidence against him proved he executed his wife and son, and that evidence will stand again.

Night, night, AleX. In your dreams they’ll be until the day you die . . .

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Rebecca Shields Top fan January 17, 2024 at 9:24 am

It has been made very clear that the FB post is not the reason the “egg juror” was dismissed. She was dismissed for not following his directions by speaking with people and for lying to Judge Newman.

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atavistic January 17, 2024 at 10:13 am

Toal & Dick used to be pretty tight. I believe Toal blessed $8M in attorney fees to Dick back in the day, courtesy of the taxpayers of SC. This could be the bluster before the bulwarks of the SC Democratic Party circle the wagons and take care of their own. Murdaugh. Everyone could say how tough she was on the case, before she ‘reluctantly’ rolls over and gives them everything they want.

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SC Queen Of Corruption January 17, 2024 at 9:01 pm

Someone sees how things are really done with these crooks!

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Rakish Top fan January 17, 2024 at 12:37 pm

Hard to figure how this issue could be decided without limiting the matter to what Toal ruled. It is a process that is being judged here and not the clerk of court. If the process was biased by Hill or another court official, it can only be discovered by actual juror testimony. Permitting the defense to cross examine jurors or disqualified jurors like the egg lady would open every judicial decision up to endless and pointless appeals and litigation. They gave their verdict and performed their sworn duty as jurors. It would unleash a totally dysfunctional legal precedent if Harpo et al were permitted to badger them as if they were on trial for their verdicts. Even in SC that would be a terrible idea…

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Remember January 17, 2024 at 2:37 pm

A notorious alcoholic sits on the bench again!!!!!

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SC Queen Of Corruption January 17, 2024 at 8:22 pm

Shhhhh… You are supposed to ignore that part of hit and run Jean’s persona.

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Stone Barrington January 18, 2024 at 4:22 pm

Attorney Harpootlian was correct and Judge Toal was wrong, yet again. State v. Green quote “…the Supreme Court of the U.S. has held that “any private communication, contact, or tampering … with a juror during a trial about the matter pending before the jury is … deemed presumptively prejudicial.” Remmer v. United States , 347 U.S. 227, 229(1954). The Court in Remmer concluded: “The presumption is not conclusive, but the burden rests heavily upon the Government to establish … that such contact with the juror was harmless to the defendant.” Id.” I had the misfortune of Toal’s ruling in a case where she claimed to have read the entire record in the 2 days she was on the case (nearly 11 years’ worth filling an entire room in the courthouse) yet missed my attorney’s current motion. I express no opinion about M’s actions, only that it is time to permanently retire J. Toal.

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S Barringtoin January 18, 2024 at 5:11 pm

And here is what the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (includes South Carolina) says on it “Applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Remmer, we established the following burden-shifting approach to considering claims of outside juror contact:
The party who is attacking the verdict bears the initial burden of introducing competent evidence that the extrajudicial communications or contacts were more than innocuous interventions. If this minimal standard is satisfied, the [ Remmer] presumption is triggered automatically. The burden then shifts to the prevailing party to prove that there exists no reasonable possibility that the jury’s verdict was influenced by an improper communication. United States v. Cheek, 94 F.3d 136, 141 (4th Cir. 1996)” U.S. v. Blauvelt, 638 F.3d 281(4th Cir. 2011). And from the 6th Circuit, this comment : “the Government shoulders the burden at a Remmer hearing of showing that the alleged juror bias was harmless and has reaffirmed that defendants are awarded a presumption of prejudice at that hearing. See B. Samantha Helgason, Opening Pandora’s Jury Box , 89 FORDHAM L. REV. 231, 242–43, 249–50 (2020)”. And almost universally, defendant’s attorneys get to ask the questions.

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Anonymous January 20, 2024 at 1:13 am

It’s time to let him serve his life sentence because he killed his wife and son and focus on the other crimes like Stephen Smith case

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gotcha! January 21, 2024 at 9:12 am

judge toal has made it clear, she is the judge…. and she’s not a drunk like one person commented. i hope she puts this case to bed and lets that murdering husband/father rot in prison for killing them!! and as for the ”egg lady” i saw her in the court room sitting with another woman behind her white haired lawyer that thinks he’s gods gift to women. lol. and judge newman made the right call when he dismissed her for running her mouth. now she’s out for revenge just like many people know. they reminded me of 2 fifth graders sitting there grinning every time prosecutor waters spoke. just so they know, murdaugh wouldn’t wipe his butt on neither one of them.

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SMH January 22, 2024 at 1:20 pm

Why do you lie so much? We should subpoena FitsNews’ records for your ISP and any other records, like the MAC address for any and all devices you use

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