Murdaugh Killings Appeal

Alex Murdaugh, left, confers with Phil Barber during a judicial hearing at the Richland County Judicial Center in Columbia, S.C. on Monday. Tracy Glantz/The State via AP, Pool

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh will not be granted a new trial based on allegations that the jury that found him guilty was improperly influenced by Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill.

South Carolina Judge Jean Toal issued the ruling following an all-day hearing Monday at the Richland County courthouse in which each juror was questioned, along with Hill herself. The first-term clerk of court denied attempting to influence the jury.

“This case is unique in my 20 years of experience as a lawyer and 35 years experience as a judge,” Toal said. After reviewing all available cases, Toal said that she had not found a single one with facts that provided a clear precedent.

Ruling from the bench, the former South Carolina Supreme Court chief justice said, “I simply do not believe that the authority of our S.C. Supreme Court requires a new trial in a very lengthy trial such as this on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity-influenced clerk of court.”

Murdaugh and his attorneys claimed that Hill made improper comments to jurors during Murdaugh’s trial in early 2023 because she believed that a guilty verdict would improve sales of a book she planned to write about the trial.

The former Hampton County lawyer was convicted last March of killing his wife and son in June 2021 at Moselle, the family’s Colleton County estate. Prosecutors argued during the trial that Murdaugh, who came from a prominent legal and political family, committed the murders to divert attention from his widespread financial problems.


In her closing remarks, Toal echoed the words of Judge Clifton Newman, who oversaw Murdaugh’s trial: “The evidence was overwhelming and the jury verdict is not surprising.”

Monday’s hearing was the climax of a four-month-long journey that began when Murdaugh’s attorneys, Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian, filed what many considered a bombshell motion on Sept. 5, 2023. It accused Hill, who became a minor celebrity widely loved by the media, lawyers, and trial watchers, of tampering with the jury in order to drive sales of her book, “Behind the Doors of Justice.”

Nine of the jurors questioned said they had not heard Hill make any statements. Of the three who testified they had heard something, just one, “Juror Z,” said it influenced her verdict.

Juror Z said that she heard Hill instructing the jurors to watch Murdaugh “closely,” saying “look at his actions” and said “look at his movements.”

“ To me it felt like she (Hill) made it seem like he (Murdaugh) was already guilty,” the juror told the court.

But testimony from Juror Z did not sway Toal. The judge had Juror Z read out an affidavit she signed that was submitted as part of the Murdaugh’s defense team’s motion. In it, Juror Z stated that she felt pressured by the other jurors to convict Murdaugh.


When questioned by Toal, the juror said the affidavit was accurate. In her ruling, Toal described the juror as “ ambivalent in her testimony” and characterized pressure from other jurors as a “normal” part of the jury process.

On the stand Monday, Hill broadly denied making any statements that could have prejudiced the jury. But in a surprise move Monday, Toal also allowed the defense to put forward an alternate juror and Barnwell Clerk of Court Rhonda McElveen to impeach Hill’s statements.

It was one of several moments during the day when the balance of the hearing appeared to shift back and forth despite what many assumed to be a losing case for the defense, pre-determined by Toal’s reading of legal precedent.

In pretrial proceedings, Toal had stated that she intended to base her ruling on precedent drawn from a case known as South Carolina v. Green, which requires the defense to prove that not only were there inappropriate contacts with the jurors but those statements also influenced their verdict. In contrast, the defense repeatedly urged Toal to adopt the precedent outlined in Remmer v. United States, a federal case. In Remmer, the U.S. Supreme Court found that making statements to the jury was presumed to be prejudicial and it was up to the state to prove they were not.

But jurors overwhelmingly testified that they had neither heard any statements nor had their verdict been influenced.

The jurors “were not here to reward friends or punish enemies,” said Creighton Waters, the lead prosecutor in the Murdaugh murder trial. “They were strong and clear this verdict was fair.”


But Murdaugh’s attorneys were adamant that they had met the high standard set by the court to prove that Hill had tampered with the jury. The testimony of “Juror Z” alone was enough to prove prejudice, they argued.

“Did it affect your finding of guilty in this case? She said ‘yes.’ That’s prejudice your honor,” Griffin said.

In giving her ruling, Toal said she found Hill “not completely credible” and believed that “Mrs. Hill was attracted by the siren call of celebrity.”

“I find that (Hill) stated to the Clerk of Court Rhonda McElveen and others her desire for a guilty verdict because it would sell books. She made comments about Murdaugh’s demanor as he testified, and she made some of those comments before he testified to at least one and maybe other jurors,” Toal said.

However, the judge said, the defense did not prove that those comments had actually prejudiced any jurors to deliver a guilty verdict.

“Did Clerk of Court Hill’s comments have any impact on the verdict of the jury? I find that the answer to this question is ‘no,’” Toal said. “Each member of this jury took their involuntary assignment very seriously. They obeyed the instructions of the court. They obeyed their oath. These good and decent citizens of Colleton County stood to their duty and rendered their verdict without fare or favor. It was a difficult task.”

In a statement issued following Toal’s ruling, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said that the process vindicated their case. “After that thorough investigation, and a fair public hearing, it is clear that Alex Murdaugh’s convictions for the murders of Maggie and Paul are based solely upon the facts and evidence of the case. It is time to move on and forward.”

Despite harsh words from Toal about their client, attorneys for Hill, Will Lewis and state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Bamberg Democrat, also portrayed Monday’s hearing as a win for their client, writing, “Justice Toal described Becky Hill’s alleged comments at the center of Murdaugh’s defense counsel’s argument as ‘fleeting’ and that any interaction she had with jurors in no way influenced their collective decision on the facts of the case.”

Toal’s ruling even offered Murdaugh’s defense attorneys a glimmer of hope. “We feel vindicated on the facts,” said Griffin at a press conference outside the courthouse. “The law is unsettled.”

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