Alex Murdaugh brutally murdered his wife and younger son. Or, at a bare minimum, he knows (helped?) who killed them – and lied about being at the murder scene. When given an opportunity to explain his lies on the witness stand last year – Murdaugh kept lying.
Were I a juror hearing his case, I would have voted to convict him because I believe the state of South Carolina – led by prosecutor Creighton Waters – proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, I believe the jury in Murdaugh’s case got it right when it found him guilty. I also believe S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman got it right when he sentenced him to consecutive life terms in prison.
Newman also got it right when he voluntarily recused himself from hearing the initial motion for a new trial filed by Murdaugh’s lawyers – doing his part to avoid any conflicts and maintain the integrity of the judiciary in this case.
But the gist of it is this: Alex Murdaugh is where he belongs – and not just because of his role in the murders – but because of his starring role in a much broader web of institutionally enabled corruption (a web which very few in the media seem interested in investigating any longer).
So … why?
Why would my media outlet spend so much time over the last few months “challenging” Murdaugh’s verdict so aggressively?
Why would we dig so deeply into the allegations of jury tampering leveled against Colleton County clerk of court Becky Hill – a woman who was, at best, a fame whore and at worst an outright jury rigger?
Why would we go to such lengths on behalf of someone as eminently undeserving of those efforts as Alex Murdaugh?
Well, that’s the thing … it’s not on behalf of Alex Murdaugh. At all. It’s on behalf of something far more elemental … something which impacts each and every one of us. Something which will linger on long after Murdaugh – and everyone prosecuting, pontificating, preening and profiting off of him – has shuffled off this mortal coil.
My concern is simple: As a longtime defender of liberty – as someone whose media outlet has spent years fighting on behalf of individual freedom in South Carolina – I fear what is happening right now fundamentally imperils liberty. And as someone whose media outlet has spent years fighting to fix a corrupt and badly broken judicial system here in the Palmetto State – I fear what is happening right now damages it more deeply.
I couldn’t care less about Alex Murdaugh – but I care very much about whether the right to trial by an impartial jury still exists in South Carolina. And after yesterday’s hearing before former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal, I’m not entirely sure it does. That irrevocable, unassailable and inalienable right suddenly seems quite revocable, quite assailable – and quite alienable.
Allow me to explain …
Two weeks ago, Toal cited what I (and many others) believed to be an incorrect interpretation of a less-than-ideal case to establish narrow guidelines – and a lofty standard of proof – ahead of Murdaugh’s retrial hearing. Even with such a high standard in place, Murdaugh’s attorneys – Dick Harpootlian, Jim Griffin, Phillip Barber and Margaret Fox – produced evidence and testimony which certainly seemed to meet it.
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Specifically, three jurors testified under oath as to multiple instances of tampering involving Hill – with one juror indicating Hill’s tampering impacted her decision to find Murdaugh guilty.
Countering this? A “star witness” who crashed and burned spectacularly on the stand.
Hill testified on behalf of the state (a curious development given her own pending criminal inquiries before the same prosecutorial office) and wound up faring about as well as Murdaugh did on the stand during his trial. She was grilled by both Harpootlian and Toal – and ending up being thoroughly unmasked as both a liar and a fraud.
Hill flat out perjured herself on multiple occasions during her testimony – providing untruthful responses which were sadly consistent with her evasiveness and obstruction in the aftermath of the tampering allegations she is facing.
To recap: Justice Toal heard credible evidence and testimony from the defense. And a rebuttal witness from the state (Hill) whose credibility was utterly and completely eviscerated on the stand.
That is the definition of partiality. And frankly, that should have been more than enough to warrant a new trial for Murdaugh based on the standard Toal imposed two weeks ago.
Why wasn’t it? Because what we saw in that packed, Richland County courtroom on Monday afternoon was not a search for the truth, it was the ceremonial validation of a pre-ordained answer. It was not a finding of fact, but the institutional insulation of a specific outcome. It was not about weighing evidence and thoughtfully considering testimony, it was about protecting a verdict.
Any shred of remaining doubt as to the predetermined nature of the outcome became abundantly clear when Toal ruled from the bench less than fifteen minutes after attorneys delivered their closing remarks – reading from a prepared statement which certainly sounded as though it had been drafted long before she considered the merits of the case.
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It was all typical South Carolina, in other words … right down to the moment during the hearing when several of the jurors whose testimony ostensibly supported the state’s case got busted violating the judge’s order by listening to another juror’s testimony on their cellphones in the jury room. Not a great testament as to the integrity of their deliberative process, was it?
Such tainting of juror testimony, incidentally, was something the media went to great lengths to keep from happening over the weekend by accommodating Toal’s embargo request on the initial juror’s testimony – which was heard last Friday.
“God damnit,” an exasperated Toal remarked to a Richland County deputy who shared this news with her.
As if her clean-up job wasn’t hard enough already …
To be clear: I commend Toal for her transparency throughout this process. While I disagree with her decision – and with her prior rulings ascribing case law and narrowing the scope of her inquiries – my hat is off to her for keeping this entire process open to the public. She could have closed the status conference and been far more restrictive in hearing juror testimony, but to her credit she opted to provide maximum access to the media and the public.
Furthermore, while I felt Toal should have allowed more evidence and testimony from defense attorneys (seeing as she imposed upon them the burden of proving prejudice in addition to tampering), the truth is she could have been far more restrictive had she chosen to do so.
Toal knows this case is going to be appealed to the state supreme court – and beyond that to the U.S. fourth circuit, in all likelihood. In addition to welcoming that scrutiny, she allowed Murdaugh’s attorneys to create a compelling record for their future appeals.
To be honest, I am far less disappointed in Toal than I am in the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson and the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – two entities which were hopelessly conflicted as it related to Hill yet adamantly refused to stand down from her “investigation” as this hearing approached. So invested were (are) these entities in preserving Murdaugh’s guilty verdict they certainly appeared to be derelict in their duties to fully and faithfully investigate the tampering allegations – even as they publicly touted their “independence.”
(Click to view)
Maybe I’m wrong, but the deeper we dig into the alleged jury tampering the clearer it becomes to me that there was an organized effort to remove a juror from the panel believed to be favorable to Murdaugh and to keep a juror on the panel believed to be favorable to the prosecution.
And that’s in addition to all the boneheaded things Hill allegedly said to jurors about watching the defendant’s body language, etc.
The attorney general’s statement to the media that everyone should “move on” from the Murdaugh drama was also incredibly tone deaf – again, as if any of these fundamental constitutional issues have anything to do with Alex Murdaugh other than being attached to his case.
No one who truly cares about constitutional liberty should ever “move on” from the attempted institutionalization of jury rigging/ tampering by a clerk of court. I know I sure as hell won’t.
In the end, every story has angels and devils. And Alex Murdaugh will forever be a devil, irrespective of what happens with his appeal of yesterday’s ruling – or any new trial he may be granted in the future (a trial he would be all-but-assured of losing).
But as the Murdaugh yarn has unspooled, many other individuals and institutions have revealed themselves for who and what they are – truly, intrinsically – and it hasn’t been pretty. Most critically, the institution Murdaugh and his corrupt co-conspirators abused and exploited for years for personal gain has now contorted itself in the opposite direction to cauterize the wound he has caused – and try to limit the spread of the infection.
Is it working?
In the fall of 2021, I sat in the Original Pinkie Masters bar on Drayton Street in downtown Savannah and warned the producers of the Netflix documentary not to trust the “good guys” in the story that was about to unfold. I told them a lot people parading around in white hats would be exposed by the time it was over as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I just didn’t know how many bad guys there would ultimately be …
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 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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