One of the jurors who helped convict Alex Murdaugh last year for the murders of his wife and son testified under oath that a county clerk made comments insinuating the disbarred attorney was guilty before the jury delivered a verdict.
Murdaugh returned to a South Carolina courtroom on Monday following a request by his attorneys for a new trial on the basis that Colleton County clerk Becky Hill allegedly tampered with the jury that convicted him last year for the shooting deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.
The defence has argued that Ms Hill advised jurors not to be “fooled by” Murdaugh’s testimony on the stand or “misled” by the defence’s evidence, pushed them to reach a quick guilty verdict, and misrepresented “critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favourable to the defence”.
On Monday, Judge Jean Toal called the jurors to the stand one by one and questioned them about potential comments that may have tainted their verdict. A female juror, identified only as juror Z by Judge Toal, said that Ms Hill had told some of the jurors to “watch [Murdaugh] closely.
“To me, it felt like … she made it feel like he was already guilty,” juror Z said.
Other jurors questioned denied hearing inappropriate remarks made by Ms Hill, or being influenced by her comments. Juror E said that he heard Ms Hill say “watch [Murdaugh’s] body language”, but claimed that this did not affect his decision.
The first of three hearings to determine whether Murdaugh should be granted a new trial kicked off with several mishaps. Judge Toal complained about the “funky” sound system that interrupted her instructions to jurors, before a back-and-forth ensued between her and Murdaugh’s attorney Dick Harpootlian when the defence asked to withdraw an affidavit from Juror Z stating that she was pressured by other jurors to deliver a guilty verdict.
Mr Harpootlian asked the judge to remind Juror Z that her remarks on the affidavit and the fact that Ms Hills’ remarks could have affected her decision both could be true. He also requested that the juror be handed a copy of the affidavit, which was not officially introduced as evidence but objected to questioning from Judge Toal about the document.
“If you want me to have her look at this affidavit but you’re telling me I can’t question her about it, I deny that objection,” Judge Toal said after Mr Harpootlian continued objecting. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too … I’ve made my ruling, take your seat.”
Then a bailiff approached the judge to announce that the jurors’ phones had not been confiscated and they had tuned in to watch the proceedings on Court TV.
When Mr Hapootlian asked for a recess to determine the next steps, the judge said: “I’m not going to take all day on this.”
Ms Hill also is expected to be grilled by lawyers for Murdaugh. In a sworn statement, the state branded the allegations as “a sweeping conspiratorial theory” and said that “not every inappropriate comment made by a member of court staff to a juror rises to the level of constitutional error”.
Judge Toal’s rulings after a pretrial hearing this month have set a difficult standard for his lawyers to prove. She ruled the defence must prove that potential misconduct including alleged comments by Ms Hill warning jurors not to trust Murdaugh when he testifies directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.
Ms Hill has denied all of the allegations levelled against her in a September motion from Murdaugh’s legal team. In a sworn statement, the state branded the allegations as “a sweeping conspiratorial theory” and said that “not every inappropriate comment made by a member of court staff to a juror rises to the level of constitutional error”.
One of the most damning accusations centres around the dismissal of juror number 785, just hours before jury deliberations began.
According to Murdaugh’s attorneys, Ms Hill “invented a story about a Facebook post to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty”.
Judge Clifton Newman, who oversaw the murder trial, removed the female juror from the panel for allegedly discussing the case with at least three other people outside of the court. The woman then prompted some light-hearted – and widely-reported – relief when she asked to pick up her “dozen eggs” from the jury room before she left.
According to the motion, Ms Hill had gone to Judge Newman on 27 February – the day after Murdaugh testified – claiming that she had seen a post in the local Facebook group “Walterboro Word of Mouth” from juror 785’s former husband, Tim Stone.
The post purportedly claimed that the juror was drinking with her ex-husband and, when she became drunk, she expressed her views on whether Murdaugh was innocent or guilty.