Tuesday, February 27, 2024
HomeUSAClerk Testifies as Judge Weighs Granting Alex Murdaugh a New Murder Trial

Clerk Testifies as Judge Weighs Granting Alex Murdaugh a New Murder Trial

At the climax of one of the most closely watched trials in South Carolina history, the packed courtroom was silent except for one woman: the court clerk, who read the guilty verdicts aloud in March 2023 that put Alex Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, in prison for life for the murder of his wife and son.

On Monday, all eyes in a courtroom were again on the clerk, Rebecca Hill. This time, though, she was testifying at a hearing in Columbia, S.C., to determine whether she improperly influenced the jurors who voted to convict Mr. Murdaugh, 55, and whether Mr. Murdaugh should get a new trial.

Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers have claimed that Ms. Hill made comments to the jurors during the trial that could have swayed their votes. A state police agency has been investigating the allegations, which include that Ms. Hill told jurors not to be “fooled” by Mr. Murdaugh’s defense, that she had private conversations with a juror, and that she told jurors before they started deliberating that “this shouldn’t take us long.”

Ms. Hill has not been charged, and she denied many of the most serious allegations in testimony on Monday. The court also heard testimony from the jurors in the murder trial.

One juror said that Ms. Hill had told jurors “to watch him closely,” referring to Mr. Murdaugh. The juror, who was identified only as “Juror Z,” said that the comments had influenced her decision to find Mr. Murdaugh guilty.

“To me, it felt like she made it seem like he was already guilty,” the juror testified, in what could be a boon for Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers.

However, nine other jurors who testified on Monday said that they did not have any communication with Ms. Hill about the case during the trial and that their verdict was not influenced by her.

Two jurors testified that they had heard a comment or two from Ms. Hill about the case, but that the comments had not influenced them.

One of those jurors, “Juror P,” said that on the day that Mr. Murdaugh testified, Ms. Hill said to “watch his body language.” Another juror, “Juror X,” who testified on Friday because of a scheduling conflict, reportedly said that Ms. Hill had noted to jurors that it was rare for a defendant to testify in his own defense.

When Ms. Hill took the stand Monday afternoon, she faced tough questioning both from Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, and from Judge Jean Toal, a former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, who is overseeing the case.

During an hour and 15 minutes of testimony, Ms. Hill strenuously denied having spoken to jurors about anything relating to the merits of the case.

Ms. Hill acknowledged that at one point during Mr. Murdaugh’s trial, in the presence of some jurors, she spoke to a bailiff about the fact that Mr. Murdaugh might testify, and that she remembered telling the jurors to pay attention and that it was “a big day.” She also said she had held a personal feeling about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt, though she said she did not share that feeling with any jurors.

Ms. Hill was a fixture of the courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., during Mr. Murdaugh’s murder trial, which stretched from January to March 2023. She later wrote a book about the trial that she said had earned her and her coauthor about $100,000. She recently acknowledged plagiarizing some of the book’s preface from a draft of a BBC article.

On Monday, she said many passages in the book that have sparked controversy were false, including her account of locking eyes with a juror during the trial and realizing that they both believed Mr. Murdaugh was guilty. She said the false accounts were the result of her using “poetic license.”

When Judge Toal questioned Ms. Hill on the stand Monday, the judge zeroed in on her credibility. Judge Toal asked Ms. Hill about evidence that seemed to contradict her testimony.

Mr. Harpootlian accused Ms. Hill of wanting a guilty verdict because she believed a conviction would help her sell more books. Ms. Hill denied that accusation, even though one of her friends, Rhonda McElveen, testified that Ms. Hill had told her as much.

Ms. McElveen, who is a court clerk in another county, said she had also heard Ms. Hill tell people in the courthouse not to be fooled by Mr. Murdaugh’s defense, though she said she did not hear Ms. Hill say that to any jurors.

Under questioning from Creighton Waters of the South Carolina attorney general’s office, who was the lead prosecutor in the murder trial, Ms. McElveen acknowledged that she never reported any of Ms. Hill’s actions to the trial judge because she did not have serious concerns about Ms. Hill’s behavior.

Earlier on Monday, Judge Toal had encountered a hiccup in the proceedings, saying she had learned that some jurors who were waiting to testify had used their cellphones to watch Juror Z testify about Ms. Hill influencing her vote. The phones were supposed to have been taken away from the jurors before the hearing began.

“I am very unhappy about it,” said Judge Toal.

It was not clear during the day whether Judge Toal would rule from the bench on Monday about whether Mr. Murdaugh will get a new trial, or would wait to issue a written opinion later. However she rules, her decision is expected to be appealed.

The allegations against Ms. Hill, which Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers first raised in September, are another twist in the tragic tale of the Murdaugh murders, a crime that has horrified and fascinated observers around the country since June 2021, when Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and their younger son, Paul, were shot to death.

Mr. Murdaugh has always maintained his innocence. But a key video shown at his trial revealed that he was at the family’s dog kennels with his wife and son shortly before they were killed, contradicting his claim that he had not been with them at that time. Jurors deliberated for less than three hours before returning the guilty verdicts that Ms. Hill read.

Mr. Murdaugh had been stealing millions of dollars from clients and law partners for years before the murders. Prosecutors said in the murder trial that he had carried out the killings in a bizarre, failed attempt to gain sympathy and stop his law firm from scrutinizing his finances.

Though he is challenging his murder convictions, Mr. Murdaugh has admitted to having stolen vast sums of money over the years. He pleaded guilty in November to a series of financial crimes and was sentenced to an additional 27 years in prison.

Lawyers with the South Carolina attorney general’s office who prosecuted the case have argued in court papers that the claims about Ms. Hill are “unfounded and not credible.” Even if Ms. Hill did make inappropriate comments, the state lawyers argued, the comments were not enough to influence the jurors in their decision.

Mr. Murdaugh, who has been disbarred, is a fourth-generation lawyer whose family had vast influence in the legal world of South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had each led a prosecutor’s office in the region — in total, for more than 80 years — and the family ran a law firm in the small town of Hampton for even longer.

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