Criminal Justice

Meddling clerk 'betrayed her oath of office' in Alex Murdaugh murder case, new-trial motion alleges

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AP Alex Murdaugh March 2023

Disbarred South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh was sentenced in early March to life in prison after a conviction in a double-murder trial during his sentencing at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina. He was found guilty on all counts. Photo by Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier via the Associated Press.

The elected court clerk in the murder trial of disbarred South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh warned jurors about defense testimony, met privately with a jury foreperson, and “invented a story” about a Facebook post that got a juror removed, according to allegations in a motion for a new trial.

The Sept. 5 motion for a new trial alleges that Rebecca Hill, the Colleton County, South Carolina, clerk of the court, tampered with the jury in violation of Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial.

Law360, Courthouse News Service, the New York Times and the Washington Post are among the publications with coverage of the motion filed by defense lawyers Richard A. Harpootlian and James M. Griffin.

Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison in March for the June 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul at the family’s South Carolina hunting property. Murdaugh has denied killing his family members. Prosecutors alleged that the murders were intended to deflect attention from Murdaugh’s financial wrongdoing.

Hill has written a book about the trial called Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders. Hill “betrayed her oath of office for money and fame,” the motion alleges.

Court clerks communicate with jurors about administrative matters, but they aren’t allowed to discuss the substance of a case, according to Jessica Roth, a professor Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, who spoke with the Washington Post.

Among Hill’s alleged misdeeds:

  • She allegedly told jurors at the beginning of the defense case, “Y’all are going to hear things that will throw you all off. Don’t let this distract you or mislead you.”
  • She allegedly told jurors that they shouldn’t be “fooled by” the defense evidence.
  • She allegedly had “frequent private conversations” with the jury foreperson that lasted five or 10 minutes, sometimes in a single-occupancy bathroom.
  • She allegedly asked jurors about their opinions on Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence.
  • She allegedly told the judge about a Facebook post accusing a juror of talking about her likely verdict. Hill said the post was written by the juror’s ex-husband and later removed. In its place, Hill allegedly said, was another post in which the ex-husband said he was drunk when he made the accusation, and he was sorry. The judge dismissed the juror.
  • It turned out that the person who made the apology post had the same last name as the juror’s ex-husband, but the profile picture showed a different person, the motion says.
  • Hill allegedly asked the juror before her removal about her views on the case and allegedly said everything Murdaugh said has been a lie.
  • Hill allegedly told jurors as they began deliberations that, “this shouldn’t take us long,” denied them cigarette breaks, and told them that they would have to stay overnight at a hotel if they deliberated past 11 p.m. Some weren’t prepared for an overnight stay.

Jurors deliberated about three hours before convicting Murdaugh.

See also:

“Ex-lawyer Murdaugh, in prison for murder, is charged with stealing from clients”

“Alex Murdaugh and whether to testify in your own defense”

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