COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. (Court TV) — In a motion referring to their client as a “disgraced former attorney and drug addict,” Alex Murdaugh‘s attorneys have asked for the South Carolina Supreme Court to remove Judge Clifton Newman from all of Murdaugh’s pending cases, including the appeal of his murder conviction.
Judge Newman sentenced Murdaugh to two life sentences on March 3, 2023, after a jury found him guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, at their home on June 7, 2021. Murdaugh has filed an appeal of his conviction, alleging inappropriate behavior and jury tampering by Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill in his case. Last week, the South Carolina Court of Appeals granted his motion to remand the case back to the circuit court for a hearing on the clerk’s behavior.
In a writ of prohibition filed on Nov. 1, Murdaugh’s attorneys have asked that Judge Newman be removed not only from the pending hearing on jury tampering but from any criminal case in which Murdaugh is the defendant. Murdaugh faces a trial on Nov. 27 for financial crimes in front of Judge Newman. The motion argues that the judge should be removed based on his personal knowledge of Hill’s conduct, as well as what Murdaugh’s attorneys describe as “numerous statements in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
The attorneys make clear in their filing that Judge Newman did nothing improper during Murdaugh’s murder trial as presiding judge, but argue that “Ms. Hill’s actions make Judge Newman a material witness regarding her conduct.” In a letter sent to the judge on Oct. 18 requesting he recuse himself, Dick Harpootlian emphasized his status as a witness.
In response to the letter, dated Oct. 25, prosecutor Creighton Waters said, “The state would merely point out nothing in the law or defense counsel’s allegations or speculation would require recusal,” especially since Judge Newman would not have testimony that is critical or unobtainable by other means.
Murdaugh’s attorneys said that evidence of Judge Newman’s bias became evident immediately after the verdict when he addressed the jury. At the time, Newman told the jury, “The verdict that you have reached is supported by … all of the evidence pointing to only one conclusion, and that’s the conclusion that you all have reached. So, I applaud you for, as a group and as a unit and individually, evaluating the evidence and coming to a proper conclusion…”
Murdaugh’s attorney said that language is prohibited by the Judicial Code of Conduct, which states, “A judge shall not commend or criticize jurors for their verdict … but may express appreciation to jurors for their service to the judicial system and the community.”
At sentencing, Newman’s comments again, Murdaugh’s attorneys say, show bias. The judge addressed Murdaugh, saying, “I sit here in this courtroom and look around the many portraits of judges and other court officials and reflect on the fact that over the past century, your family, including you, have been prosecuting people here in this courtroom, and many have received the death penalty, probably for lesser conduct.”
“The Court’s outrage that Mr. Murdaugh presumed to defend himself is a manifestation of personal bias against Mr. Murdaugh arising from other facts that occurred years before the murders, and from the prominence and privilege Mr. Murdaugh’s family enjoyed and which Mr. Murdaugh abused,” Murdaugh’s attorneys argued in the motion.
Newman also gave several interviews after the verdict and sentencing discussing the trial that made national headlines, and Murdaugh’s attorneys attached transcripts of the comments made by the judge as further evidence of bias against their client. In one interview at Cleveland State University College of Law, Judge Newman expressed opinions about the defense’s decision to seek a jury view of the murder scene, as well as offering thoughts about rulings during the trial.
“Judge Newman admitted his decision to let the State present weeks of testimony on Mr. Murdaugh’s financial crimes was ‘pretty controversial’.”
According to Waters, recusal for bias is mandated only when the “bias or personal knowledge must stem from an extrajudicial source not related to the judge’s participation in the case.”
In a footnote, Murdaugh’s attorneys specify that while the motion appears to focus solely on the murder appeal, the request is for the recusal to apply to all of their client’s pending cases. “The grounds Mr. Murdaugh assets for disqualifying Judge Newman from presiding over a future trial are identical to the asserted grounds for disqualifying him from hearing the motion for a new trial, except that Judge Newman does not have personal knowledge of disputed facts regarding Mr. Murdaugh’s financial crimes.”