How Murdaugh could get a new trial and serve federal time
Hordes of books are being released and a new Netflix documentary just dropped featuring the clerk of court in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial. But six months later, the case may not be over as that clerk, Becky Hill, is now accused of jury tampering.
It’s the latest twist in a dizzying saga.
Murdaugh’s defense team says it was the release of Hill’s own book, “Behind the Doors of Justice,” that prompted jurors to talk about being influenced to quickly convict the once prominent attorney of murdering his wife and son.
“I’ve never had it happen,” said defense attorney Dick Harpootlian during a press conference earlier this month. “Again, I’ve been doing this for a very long time.”
Harpootlian has filed a motion with the state’s Court of Appeals requesting a new trial. It includes sworn testimony from two jurors, interviews with two others and excerpts from Hill’s book in which she says she became convinced Murdaugh was guilty.
The jurors allege Hill, among other things, reported a fake Facebook post to get a juror removed, told jurors not to be fooled by Murdaugh before he testified and frequently had private conversations with the jury foreperson in a bathroom.
Hill is an elected clerk of court. Her job with jurors is to make sure needs like transportation and lunch are met.
“They’re not ever someone who should talk to them about the case,” Harpootlian said.
One juror was dismissed and replaced hours before deliberations, which took three hours following a six-week trial.
Longtime Charleston defense attorney and former prosecutor Andy Savage says, while rare, he’s had a case of jury tampering that resulted in a mistrial. But it did not involve a court official like Hill. He’s read the allegations against her.
“There’s a lot in there that concerns me,” says Savage.
Savage has seen his share of high-profile cases. He represented former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager in the shooting death of Walter Scott in 2015, as well as families in the Mother Emanuel massacre that same year.
Savage says the jurors' claims and excerpts from Hill’s book paint a portrait of a public official who did not stay within the boundaries of her authority. He expects a hearing in which Hill, jurors, and other potential witnesses testify and the prosecution tries to disprove the allegations.
And Savage says it doesn’t matter if Hill intended to influence the jurors’ decision or not.
“What matters is how these individual jurors, whether it’s one or twelve, interpreted what they think she was trying to communicate,” says Savage.
If a judge finds the communication prejudicial, Murdaugh’s state murder convictions will be tossed out.
His attorneys say it’s possible he could then serve time in a federal prison instead of the state facility where he’s currently being held. Murdaugh is awaiting sentencing on 22 federal financial fraud charges he pleaded guilty to last week. A trial on similar state charges isn’t scheduled until after Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson says state investigators have found “significant factual disputes” with the jury tampering allegations. He’s now forced to defend Hill who he publicly praised after the verdict, calling her by a nickname, “Becky Boo.”
Murdaugh’s defense team is outraged that state agents are investigating because they have a vested interest in upholding his conviction. But Wilson says the agents involved are not the same ones who handled Murdaugh's murder case.
Hill did not respond to a request for comment and has yet to speak publicly about the allegations. In her book, she talks about trying to bring southern hospitality to the frenzy that descended on the small-town courthouse.
What's at stake?
Savage says it is the court’s responsibility to ensure the defendant, no matter who they are, gets a fair trial.
“This has impact not just on Murdaugh, but you know it attacks the integrity of the criminal justice system,” says Savage.
Already, the state’s justice system suffers a black eye, bruised by an attorney who stole settlement money from vulnerable personal injury clients and right now is convicted of murdering his wife and son.