Instead, it’s the jurors who found him guilty of the shooting deaths of his wife and son who are being questioned by a judge on whether comments by a court clerk influenced their conviction. Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison.
The first juror questioned Monday said Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill did tell jurors to watch Murdaugh’s actions and “watch him closely.”
“She made it seem like he was already guilty,” said the woman, identified only as Juror Z. Asked whether this affected her vote to find him guilty, she said “Yes ma’am.”
In later questioning the juror said she supports a sworn statement she gave months ago that her fellow jurors, more than the clerk’s statements, influenced her to vote guilty.
Then, in another surprising twist, a bailiff interrupted the hearing to share that because the jurors’ cellphones were not taken from them on arrival at court, several were able to watch the Court TV live feed and heard everything the first juror said.
Despite the setback, the judge said she would proceed with the hearing to get the jurors’ testimony on the record, and declared a five-minute break, in part to enable herself to calm down. “We are going to get through this,” she declared.
The unusual hearing comes in response to the tampering allegations by Murdaugh’s attorneys.
Hill also is expected to be grilled by lawyers for Murdaugh, whose fall from his role as an attorney lording over his small county to a sentence of life without parole has been exhaustively covered by true crime shows, podcasts and bloggers.
Jury tampering is the basis for Murdaugh’s appeal, but Judge Jean Toal’s rulings after a pretrial hearing this month have set a difficult standard for his lawyers to prove.
Toal ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct including alleged comments by Hill warning jurors not to trust Murdaugh when he testifies directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.
The defense argued if they prove the jury was tampered with, it shouldn’t matter whether a juror openly said their verdict changed, because the influence can be subtle and still keep Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.
“According to the State, if Ms. Hill had the jury room decorated like a grade-school classroom with colorful signs saying ‘Murdaugh is guilty’ that would not violate Mr. Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial … so long as jurors did not testify that they voted guilty because of the decor,” the defense wrote in a brief.
Toal also won’t let the defense call the trial judge Clifton Newman as a witness, nor prosecutors or other court workers who might testify that Hill seemed certain of Murdaugh’s guilt or tried to influence the case.
The judge also limited what can be asked of Hill. Toal told lawyers they can’t question the elected clerk about a criminal investigation announced by state agents into whether she used her office for financial gain, emailed prosecutors with suggestions on how to discredit a defense expert, conspired with her son who is charged with wiretapping county phones, or plagiarized part of her book on the case using a passage from a BBC reporter who accidentally emailed her instead of her boss with a similar address.
“I’m very, very reluctant to turn this hearing about juror contact into a wholesale exploration about every piece of conduct by the clerk,” Toal said.
Hill, in a sworn statement, has denied any jury tampering.
Murdaugh, 55, is expected at the hearing in a prison jumpsuit. Even if he gets a new murder trial he won’t walk out free. He’s also serving 27 years after admitting he stole $12 million from his law firm and from settlements he gained for clients on wrongful death and serious injury lawsuits. Murdaugh promised not to appeal that sentence as part of his plea deal.
But Murdaugh has remained adamant that he did not kill his younger son Paul with a shotgun and his wife Maggie with a rifle since the moment he told deputies he found their bodies at their Colleton County home in 2021. He testified in his own defense.
The jurors, their anonymity protected, will be allowed to enter the Richland County Courthouse through a private entrance. The hearing will be televised, but their faces cannot be shown and they will only be identified by their juror numbers.
If this effort fails, Murdaugh hasn’t even started the regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue a number of reasons why his murder trial was unfair, including the judge allowing voluminous testimony of his financial crimes. They said this enabled prosecutors to smear Murdaugh with evidence not directly linked to the killings.
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