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Alex Murdaugh's defense seeks new trial based on claims of jury tampering

The once-prominent South Carolina lawyer was convicted of murdering his wife and son in 2021.
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WALTERBORO, S.C. — Lawyers for convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh filed a motion Tuesday seeking a new trial, alleging they had uncovered evidence of jury tampering.

Rebecca Hill, the Colleton County clerk of court, "tampered with the jury by advising them not to believe Murdaugh's testimony and other evidence presented by the defense, pressuring them to reach a quick guilty verdict, and even misrepresenting critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favorable to the defense," attorneys Richard "Dick" Harpootlian and Jim Griffin claim in the motion.

Harpootlian said at a news conference Tuesday that they collected sworn testimony from two jurors and interviewed a third to learn that Hill, an elected official serving her first term, had had "improper, private communications" with some jurors outside the courtroom.

"They're not someone who should ever talk about the case," Harpootlian said of the clerk. "I've never heard it happen, and I've been doing this a very long time."

The latest legal twist comes six months after a jury found Murdaugh, 55, guilty of two counts of murder in the fatal shootings of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their youngest son, Paul, 22, in June 2021.

Two sources familiar with the motion said at least two of the jurors have hired lawyers.

Murdaugh, a once-prominent South Carolina lawyer, was punished with two consecutive life sentences without parole.

Hill is a co-author of the book "Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders," published in July. It details Hill's experience overseeing such a major trial and her family's history with the Murdaughs, whose family patriarchs had wielded power as the top prosecutor in South Carolina's coastal Lowcountry.

The motion for a new trial accuses Hill of pressuring jurors, who deliberated less than three hours to find Murdaugh guilty, to reach a verdict. It also alleges that while jurors were permitted to take smoking breaks, Hill told them they could not do so until deliberations were complete.

"Ms. Hill did these things to secure for herself a book deal and media appearances that would not happen in the event of a mistrial," the motion says. "Ms. Hill betrayed her oath of office for money and fame."

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The motion also claims Hill "invented a story" about a Facebook post to have a juror removed who she believed would have found Murdaugh not guilty.

Separately, an affidavit from a person identified only as juror 630 says that before Murdaugh took the stand at his trial, Hill told members of the jury "not to be fooled" by the evidence the defense presents, "which I understood to mean that Mr. Murdaugh would lie when he testified."

"The issue here is that an elected state official engaged in intentional misconduct — deliberately violating a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial before an impartial jury — to secure financial gain for herself," the motion says. "Where a state actor engages in private communication with the jury about the merits of the prosecution, the verdict is impossible to sustain."

Hill could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday, but she told Court TV the allegations were "untrue."

On Thursday, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said he asked the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to investigate the allegations of jury tampering.

"The State’s only vested interest is seeking the truth," the attorney general's office and the law enforcement division, known as SLED, said in a joint statement. SLED also investigated the slayings.

“As with all investigations, SLED and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office are committed to a fair and impartial investigation and will continue to follow the facts wherever they lead,” they said in a statement.

Murdaugh has proclaimed his innocence since a grand jury indicted him in the murders last year. Prosecutors alleged he killed them to gain pity before he would be exposed for a slew of financial crimes.

Murdaugh took the stand, admitted lying repeatedly to investigators and said he was dishonest about his alibi on the night of the murders because of his addiction to pain pills and general paranoia.

Murdaugh's defense team had said it planned to appeal the conviction. Throughout the roughly six-week trial, it objected to several of the court's rulings, including the admission of Murdaugh's financial crimes into evidence.

The prosecution built a sprawling case based on circumstantial evidence to convince jurors that Murdaugh was guilty, using electronic data and video extracted from the victims' cellphones to suggest that only he had the motive, means and opportunity to kill his wife and son.

Three jurors said on NBC's "TODAY" show in March that they didn't believe Murdaugh should have taken the stand in his defense and that his emotions during his two days of testimony appeared manufactured.

"No, I didn't think he was crying. He turned it on and off," juror Gwen Generette said.

From left, Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.
From left, Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.via Facebook

The trial drew intense coverage for a case first classified as an unsolved double homicide of the mother and son, but it soon widened into allegations of financial fraud, a hired hitman plot and drug addiction, and it revived inquiries into other curious deaths linked to the Murdaugh family.

In general, winning a new trial for a murder case in South Carolina is considered a high bar to overcome. The new trial can't simply be a regurgitation of arguments heard previously; it must hinge on new evidence discovered after the trial that is so significant it can change the verdict.

Last week, the South Carolina Corrections Department said Murdaugh lost his prison phone and canteen privileges after he broke rules about engaging with the media, stemming from an investigation that found he read his journal entries to Griffin, one of his attorneys, in a recorded phone call. The recording was for a Fox Nation documentary, according to an incident report.

Haylee Barber reported from Walterboro and Erik Ortiz from New York.