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Alex Murdaugh wants a new trial, accusing the clerk of court of jury tampering

Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill, seen here as prosecutor Creighton Waters makes closing arguments in the Alex Murdaugh trial, is accused of improperly influencing jurors in the high-profile murder case.
Joshua Boucher
/
The State via AP, Pool
Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill, seen here as prosecutor Creighton Waters makes closing arguments in the Alex Murdaugh trial, is accused of improperly influencing jurors in the high-profile murder case.

Alex Murdaugh wants a new trial over the murders of his wife and younger son, filing court papers that accuse the clerk of court in Colleton County, S.C., of tampering with the jury who found him guilty.

Murdaugh, the disbarred attorney and scion of a once-influential family, was sentenced to life without parole in March for the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, after jurors found him guilty in the 2021 slayings. He also faces a raft of charges over alleged financial crimes during his years practicing law.

Defense lawyers for Murdaugh, 55, have already launched an appeal of the murder verdict. Now they're looking to put that effort on hold so they can pursue a new trial altogether, alleging that Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill violated her oath of office as well as their client's constitutional right to a fair trial and impartial jury.

Here's a quick guide to this latest twist in the Murdaugh murder case:

Hill is accused of 'improper comments and efforts to influence the jurors' verdict'

Murdaugh attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin accuse Hill, who was elected in 2020, of telling the jury "not to be fooled" by the defense team's case. They also say that when Murdaugh was about to testify, Hill warned jurors to "watch him closely."

Hill did not reply to NPR's request for comment or a response to the new filing.

In another serious charge, the defense attorneys allege that Hill "invented a story about a Facebook post to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty."

The court filing also seeks to raise suspicions about what it calls Hill's "frequent private conversations with the jury foreperson." But as South Carolina attorney Sarah A. Ford and legal director for a victims' assistance program noted via X (formerly Twitter), a number of mundane circumstances could prompt private conversations between a clerk of court and a jury leader, including medical appointments and scheduling issues.

Murdaugh's team also accuses Hill of pressuring jurors as they began deliberations, allegedly telling them, "this shouldn't take us long."

In the defense's narrative, Hill was allegedly motivated by two main factors: the removal of "a juror she believed might not vote guilty"; and her own self-interest, in publishing a book about the trial and participating in media coverage. Hill recently published the book she co-authored; Amazon currently lists it as a best seller.

The filing references 2 sworn affidavits from jurors

The defense filing references statements from four jurors — but in two of those instances, the jurors did not sign the affidavits that quote them. Rather, their comments are presented by Holli Miller, a paralegal from Harpootlian's law firm who signed the affidavits.

In Juror No. 741's case, the filing said, the female juror initially agreed to sign the affidavit, but Murdaugh's lawyers were "unable to arrange with her a suitable time and place." The lack of the other juror's signature was not explained.

The jurors who signed their own affidavits include Juror No. 785, who was dismissed from the jury by Judge Clifton Newman over "improper conversations" with people not involved with the case. To those following the case, the dismissed juror became known as "the egg lady," because she made sure to take eggs home with her that another juror had brought in.

In the Murdaugh team's telling, Hill questioned Juror No. 785 about a Facebook post about the trial and the juror that it says was wrongly attributed to her ex-husband.

But as the filing mentions in a footnote, Juror No. 785's behavior was also scrutinized over another incident, after a co-worker of the juror's tenant wrote to the court to say she "had expressed an opinion" about the case during a visit to the tenant.

Murdaugh's team wants an evidentiary hearing

The filing was made on Tuesday with the South Carolina Court of Appeals — which then gave prosecutors a 10-day deadline to file their response.

Harpootlian and Griffin argue that there is enough proof of jury tampering to warrant an evidentiary hearing — the next step in their bid to prove the jury was unfairly biased.

If the attorneys can substantiate their claims against Hill, it would put a heavy burden on the prosecution to prove "that such contact with the juror was harmless to the defendant," Murdaugh's team says in the filing, citing a legal precedent.

The presumption of prejudice stemming from improper contact with a juror "is even stronger where the contact was made by a court official," the filing states. Citing another precedent, it adds, "a new trial must be granted unless it clearly appears that the subject matter of the communication was harmless and could not have affected the verdict."

Murdaugh was recently disciplined over prison policies

The motion for a new trial was filed a week after Murdaugh was punished for violating prison policies regarding his access to the outside world.

Over the summer, the South Carolina Department of Corrections says, attorney Griffin recorded Murdaugh during a phone call so he could give the recording to the producers making a documentary about his case. And when Murdaugh's phone privileges were revoked, they say, he used another inmate's PIN number to make another call — committing another policy violation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.