Alex Murdaugh denied new trial for jury tampering allegations

Posted at 8:51 PM, January 29, 2024

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Court TV/AP) — Retired Chief Justice Jean Toal denied convicted killer Alex Murdaugh‘s bid for a new double-murder trial on the basis of jury tampering by the clerk of court.

Alex Murdaugh is led into court with shackles

Alex Murdaugh, second from left, is brought out into the courtroom during a jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

Judge Jean Toal found that even though she believed Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill was not a credible witness there was no evidence that her comments impacted the jury’s verdict.

“I find that the clerk of court was not completely credible as a witness. Miss Hill was attracted by the siren call of celebrity,” Toal said.

As Justice Toal issued her ruling, she noted that she strongly agreed with the jury’s verdict and that there was overwhelming evidence that Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in 2021.

WATCH: Becky Hill’s Full Testimony

Monday’s evidentiary hearing spanned the entire day, with Justice Toal questioning 11 jurors, having questioned one juror on Friday in a specially scheduled hearing.

The jurors were each given new identifiers, switching from three-digit numbers to a single letter. Juror Z, the first to be questioned on Monday, was the deliberating juror who provided an affidavit to Murdaugh’s defense about statements she alleged Hill made to her during the trial. Those comments included a warning to watch Murdaugh’s body language on the stand during his testimony. The juror testified that her verdict was influenced by Hill. “She made it seem like he was already guilty,” Juror Z told the judge.

Becky Hill testifies in court

Becky Hill, the Colleton County Clerk of Court, testified at an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 29, 2024. (Court TV)

But in Juror Z’s affidavit, she said that she felt pressure from other jurors to come to her guilty verdict, and that ultimately weighed against her testimony.

There was drama in the courtroom after Juror Z returned to the assembly room, where the other jurors were waiting for their turn to testify. But the bailiff who had escorted the jurors into the room had neglected to confiscate their phones, and two had been watching the proceedings of Juror Z’s questioning over Court TV’s livestream.

The incident led Justice Toal to add additional questions to her inquiries of the remaining jurors to see whether hearing some of her questioning of Juror Z impacted their testimony.

The questioning of the remaining 10 jurors went relatively quickly, with the majority testifying that they didn’t hear Hill say anything about the case and that she did not influence their verdict.

Ultimately, three deliberating jurors described Hill talking to them about the case:

  • Juror Z said it impacted her verdict.
  • Juror P also reported hearing Hill tell the jurors to watch Murdaugh’s body language, but said it did not impact his verdict.
  • Juror X, on Friday, testified that she heard Hill talking about Murduagh testifying and described it as an epic day and something that doesn’t always happen.

During the afternoon session, Hill took the stand and denied talking to the jurors about anything that had to do with the case.

Court TV Legendary Trials: SC v. Alex Murdaugh (2023)

During her cross-examination, she also denied driving a juror home during the trial. While she admitted that she made $100,000 from sales of the book she wrote about the trial, she also testified that she didn’t keep very much of the money since it was a self-published book.

But it was Toal’s surgical questioning of Hill that highlighted the inconsistencies in her testimony and showed her to be a less-than-credible witness. Toal questioned her truthfulness, citing the book, for which Hill said she used “literary license” for some things.

“I did have a certain way I felt,” Hill said.

Justice Toal found Hill’s testimony so troubling that she reversed her earlier decision and decided the defense could have the unseated alternate, Juror 741, testify as well as the Barnwell County Clerk of Court Rhonda McElveen.

Judge Jean Toal speaks from the bench

Judge Jean Toal talks to the court during the Alex Murdaugh jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

Rhonda McElveen provided comic relief in the tense courtroom in the afternoon.

She was very direct and straightforward as she described how Hill began talking to her back in December 2022. McElveen said that Hill told her they needed to write a book about Murdaugh’s trial and that he needed to be found guilty “because she wanted a lake house and I wanted to retire,” and that a guilty verdict would sell more books.

McElveen assisted Hill throughout the trial and told the Court that when she heard that Hill had driven a juror home after court, she confronted her and told her that she couldn’t do that since she was the Clerk of Court. Under cross-examination, McElveen said she didn’t reach out to the trial judge because she didn’t think any of Hill’s comments or behaviors rose to the level of misconduct.

The last witness was the unseated alternate Juror 741, but she wasn’t a great witness for the defense.

During the closings, Creighton Waters argued the jurors did their duty and anything Hill said to them didn’t impact their verdict.

Jim Griffin countered that the defense only had to prove that Hill made the comments and that they prejudiced the jurors against Murudagh.

Alex Murdaugh talks to his attorney in court

Alex Murdaugh, right, talks with his defense attorney Jim Griffin during a jury-tampering hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

Justice Toal took about 20 minutes to consider her decision.

MORE: Alex Murdaugh Hearing: Everything That Happened This Morning

When she returned, she stated that Hill was not a credible witness but that she didn’t think anything Hill said to the jurors didn’t influence their verdict and thus she would not grant Alex Murdaugh a new trial.

After the hearing, Murdaugh’s defense team said they would appeal Justice Toal’s decision. To do that, they will have to file with the South Carolina Court of Appeals at some point in the future.

Even if Murdaugh, 55, is ever granted a new trial, he won’t walk out of jail free. He was sentenced to 27 years after admitting to financial crimes. Murdaugh promised not to appeal that sentence as part of his plea agreement.

Even if this effort fails, Murdaugh hasn’t even started the regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue a number of reasons why his murder trial was unfair, including the judge allowing voluminous testimony of his financial crimes. They said this enabled prosecutors to smear Murdaugh with evidence not directly linked to the killings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.