Convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh was denied a new trial even after a juror testified that her decision to find him guilty was influenced by a county clerk who wanted to write a book about the case.
Murdaugh, 55, was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole for the 2021 murders of his wife Maggie and youngest son Paul. His attorneys have argued that he deserves a new trial because Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill unduly influenced jurors in order to get a book deal.
On Thursday, South Carolina Judge Jean Toal denied Murdaugh’s bid for a new trial while condemning Hill in her remarks about her ruling, CNN reported. Toal said Hill “attracted by the siren call of celebrity,” and that she “wanted to write a book about the trial and expressed that as early as November 2022, long before the trial began.”
Hill has denied the allegations against her, but Toal determined that Hill had told another clerk and others of “her desire for a guilty verdict because it would sell books.”
“She made comments about Murdaugh’s demeanor as he testified and she made some of those comments before he testified to at least one and maybe more jurors,” Toal said, according to CNN. “Did clerk of court Hill’s comments have any impact on the verdict of the jury? I find that the answer to this question is no.”
Toal added that the jurors determined Murdaugh to be guilty “without fear or favor,” but that Hill “allowed public attention of the moment to overcome her duty.”
“I simply do not believe that the authority of our South Carolina Supreme Court requires a new trial in a very lengthy trial such as this on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity-influenced clerk of courts,” Toal said, according to CNN.
Toal further explained that she had personally interviewed each juror and that 11 of them said that they either hadn’t heard any comments from Hill or, of those who had, that those comments did not affect their judgment. The 12th juror, according to Toal, was “ambivalent” during testimony and only said she felt pressure from other jurors.
That juror, according to NPR, testified that Hill made comments that indicated that Hill thought Murdaugh was guilty. Brian Entin, senior national correspondent for NewsNation, posted on X during the hearing that the juror “said her verdict WAS influenced by the clerk of court.”
CBS reported that the juror, identified only as Juror Z, answered “Yes ma’am,” when the judge asked if Hill’s comments affected her vote. The juror later told the judge that she stood by an earlier sworn affidavit that said the other jurors influenced her to vote guilty more than Hill’s comments.
Entin also reported that jurors were watching the livestream of the hearing in the back room, which he said was “shocking.”
“[T]hey were being called in one by one … and not supposed to hear what each other were saying or the arguments being made by the lawyers,” Entin reported. “[J]udge says their cell phones have now been taken.”
In his closing arguments, Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin cited case law while arguing that any communication from court staff to jurors is considered prejudicial, and that the defense proved Hill had prejudicial communications with jurors. He argued that “one of those jurors says it influenced my verdict. How is that not prejudice?”
Murdaugh has denied killing his wife and son, but pleaded guilty to various financial crimes and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
He still has appeals available for the murder convictions.