From the Bench: Small town, big jury pool: Can you find an impartial jury? – OPINION

Posted at 4:53 PM, January 27, 2023 and last updated 11:42 AM, January 30, 2023

By: Judge Ashley Willcott

WALTERBORO, S.C. (Court TV) – In a small, rural town of less than 100 people, how exactly do you find an impartial jury for one of the highest profile murder cases in the country?


Alex Murdaugh, a once-prominent local attorney in Collecton County, South Carolina, lived on a 1,770 acre estate in Islandton, a small town of about 75 people. He comes from a powerful legal family known for their legal roots and wealth that dates back over a century. Murdaugh’s great grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr., served as the 14th Circuit Solicitor from 1920-2006. Opting to work for the family’s private law firm, Alex Murdaugh is credited with winning many multimillion-dollar settlements for fatal accidents and workplace injuries. It’s safe to say, most locals of the Low Country know or know of the Murdaugh family.

But, who could have predicted that a member of this prominent family would face 106 grand jury criminal charges, including drugs, financial fraud, and two counts of murder for the violent shooting death of his wife, Maggie and their youngest son, Paul?

Murdaugh has pleaded “Not Guilty” to the murder charges, and his defense team proclaims his innocence and asserts an alibi defense. “I have stated several times that he was visiting his mother and ailing father at the time of the murders,” Dick Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s defense attorney.

The State, on the other hand, claims he killed his wife and son to cover up a collapsing financial house of cards. Murdaugh is accused of numerous financial crimes stemming from in 2011, including stealing millions of dollars from clients, diverting a wrongful death settlement from the family of his longtime maid to himself, running a drug and money laundering ring, evading taxes and committing fraud from what police said was a failed attempt to fake his own death so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.

In his opening statement, lead prosecutor Creighton Waters cited these financial crimes as a motive to commit the alleged murders. “This is a white-collar case that culminated with two murders,” Waters told the jury.

Murdaugh, who’s been incarcerated since October 14, 2021, has been steadfast in his demand for a speedy trial. The first step…jury selection.

Striking a jury is the selecting or nominating of twelve people out of a larger number of potential jurors, know as the jury pool. In Murdaugh’s case, summons were mailed to 900 potential jurors to arrive at the courthouse at designated times throughout the day. Upon arrival they were given a questionnaire to fill out regarding their knowledge about the case.

In South Carolina, the Honorable Clifton Newman was tasked with asking each panel of potential jurors reasons for disqualification or exemption, set by South Carolina statute.

Exemptions include:

  • Persons 65 years of age or older who wish to be excused
  • The primary caretaker of a disable person or a person age 65 or older who cannot care for himself
  • Persons with legal custody and duty of care of a child under the age of seven and who cannot provide adequate childcare while serving as a juror
  • A person who is a guard, keeper, employee, or other officer at a state penitentiary
  • A person who has served on a circuit court jury during the previous two calendar years, or who has served on a grand jury during the previous four calendar years
  • A student or a school employee and who wishes to be transferred to a later date that will not conflict with a school term.

Disqualifications include:

  • A person who is convicted in a state or federal court of record of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and their civil rights have not been restored by pardon or amnesty
  • A person who is unable to read, write, speak, or understand the English language
  • A person who is incapable by reason of mental or physical infirmities to render efficient jury service
  • A person who has less than a sixth grade education or its equivalent; a person who is a clerk or deputy clerk of the court, constable, sheriff, probate judge, county commissioner, magistrate or other county officer, or any person employed within the walls of any courthouse

After jurors were excused for these reasons, Judge Newman asked the jury pool who had heard about the case, read about the case, or knew about the case. Out of the remaining jurors, there was NO ONE left who had not heard about the case.

Those who had already formed an opinion of Murdaugh were excused. Other excused had expressed opinions to family, friends, or coworkers, some were socially acquainted with Maggie, Paul, or Alex Murdaugh, and some were friends or related- all of whom were also excused. One male juror responded, for instance, that he was represented by the defendant’s law firm. Interestingly, this did not automatically disqualify him. The judge inquired further probing if the defendant himself had represented the potential juror, if it was on-going litigation, and whether or not the juror felt it would cause him to be biased if selected for the jury.

From the pool of qualified jurors, 12 and 6 alternates were chosen to hear this case.

What do you think? Can the selected jury be fair and impartial when everyone knows or knows of the defendant’s alleged crimes and his wealthy, powerful family? Will there by an implicit bias for or against him?

Let us know on social media @courttv #fromthebench

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