CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Attorneys for Alex Murdaugh say the elected clerk of court tampered with the jury process at the notorious ex-attorney’s murder trial earlier this year.
Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill urged jurors not to be “fooled” or “misled” by Murdaugh’s testimony and other evidence presented by the defense at the closely watched trial, according to a motion filed Tuesday in the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
She also pressured jurors to reach a quick guilty verdict during deliberations and lied to the trial judge in a campaign to remove a juror she believed was favorable to the defense, the motion states.
Hill's motive Murdaugh’s attorneys allege, was to secure a book deal and media appearances.
“Ms. Hill betrayed her oath of office for money and fame,” the motion states. “Once these facts are proven, the law does not allow the court any discretion about how to respond. It must grant a new trial.”
Hill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Murdaugh, 55, was sentenced to two life sentences after a jury found him guilty in March of fatally shooting his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, at the family’s 1,772-acre hunting estate in Colleton County.
The father reported finding the bodies the night of June 7, 2021, near the feed room of a kennel. Maggie, 52, was shot with a high-powered rifle while their 22-year-old son was twice blasted with a shotgun.
The shocking crime shined a national spotlight on the Murdaughs, a prominent family that wielded considerable influence in the Lowcountry. Their name graced ballots for nearly a century as three generations of Murdaughs were elected solicitor, or top prosecutor, for five counties in the region. Meanwhile, they built a lucrative law practice that drew clients from across the state.
Murdaugh initially told authorities he was visiting his ailing mother on the night of June 7 and found his loved ones’ bodies when he returned to the estate. But his alibi fell apart after investigators discovered a 50-second video his son recorded on his cellphone only minutes before the murders.
At trial, more than half a dozen witnesses testified they could hear Murdaugh’s distinctive voice in the video, which Paul tried to send to a friend. Murdaugh admitted on the witness stand he lied to investigators about visiting the kennels, but claimed it was not to cover-up: He lied because his opioid use made him paranoid, he testified.
Jurors deliberated for a little less than three hours before finding Murdaugh guilty March 2 in both murders. His attorneys filed their notice of appeal a week later.
Tuesday’s motion detailed an expansive campaign by Hill to sway the opinions of the jurors. It was bolstered by affidavits from four jurors and statements from Hill’s recently published book.
Several jurors claim Hill told them as the defense began its case, “Y’all are going to hear things that will throw you off. Don’t let this distract or mislead you.”
During Murdaugh’s testimony, she allegedly told jurors to “watch him closely” and “look at his actions,” which at least one juror understood to mean he was guilty, according to the motion.
Hill privately met with the jury’s foreperson on several occasions, the motion states, sometimes squeezing together into a single-occupancy bathroom. The foreperson never told the other jurors what they discussed.
Murdaugh’s lawyers said Hill also played a key role in one juror being dismissed on the eve of deliberations.
On Feb. 27, Hill told Judge Clifton Newman that the juror’s ex-husband had accused her in a post on a local Facebook group of discussing the case with others. The post was removed, the clerk said, but a member of her staff found a second post he published apologizing for making the accusation.
The ex-husband swore in an affidavit, however, that he'd never posted about the juror. The deleted post was not recoverable under Facebook’s retention policies, but defense attorneys downloaded the ex-husband’s Facebook activity, which confirmed he did not post the apology, the motion claims.
Hill questioned the juror alone in her office on Feb. 28, the motion says, including asking the juror if she would vote guilty or not guilty. The juror said she had not made up her mind.
Judge Newman expressed displeasure with Hill’s questioning during an in-camera hearing on the issue.
“Oh boy, I’m not too pleased about the clerk interrogating a juror as opposed to coming to me and bringing it to me,” he said, according to a transcript.
Hill asked the juror again about her verdict before she was dismissed. The juror said she thought the prosecutor’s closing argument was good, but she was still concerned the murder weapons were not found.
Then Hill allegedly told the juror “that everything Mr. Murdaugh has said has been lies and that I should forget about the guns, they will never be seen again.”
During deliberations, Hill allegedly remarked, “This shouldn’t take us long,” according to the motion. She told jurors that if deliberations went past 11 p.m. they would be taken to a hotel, though none were prepared for an overnight stay; she refused breaks for the six smokers on the jury, which had been permitted during the trial; and she told jurors the high-publicity trial would make them famous.
Hill sought out the limelight herself after Murdaugh’s conviction, the motion states. On Aug. 1, Wind River Media published her 238-page book, “Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders,” which promises readers a “front row seat in The Trial of The Century.”
Defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian at a Tuesday afternoon press conference accused Hill of violating Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial.
Harpootlian, of an eponymous Columbia-based firm, argued court clerks are responsible for ordering the jurors’ meals and assisting with transportation — but they are prohibited from discussing the evidence with them.
“I’ve never heard of it happening until this case,” he said.
Murdaugh is serving his time in an undisclosed prison, where he works as a wardkeeper assistant, according to state records. Griffin, of Griffin & Davis LLC, also in Columbia, said his client was “astonished” and “shaken” when he heard about Hill’s interference.
“I am optimistic we will get a new trial,” Griffin said. “How long that will take? I don’t know.”
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a brief statement Tuesday prosecutors were reviewing the defense’s motion and “will respond through the legal process at the appropriate time.”Follow @SteveGarrisonPC
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