COLUMBIA, S.C. (FOX Carolina) – Judge Jean Toal rejected convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s request for a new murder trial on Monday.
Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill and jurors testified in a hearing to determine if Murdaugh would get a new trial based on allegations that Hill tampered with the jury. Murdaugh was found guilty and sentenced in 2023 to two life terms in prison for the murders of his wife Maggie and youngest son Paul.
Judge Toal said the burden of proof was on the defense, who would have to show the jury was influenced by Hill before they could get a new trial. The judge ultimately ruled that there was not sufficient proof the jury’s verdict was influenced.
On Friday, Jan. 26, the first juror took the stand in a separate hearing due to a scheduling conflict. The woman, only identified as Juror X, testified that Hill did not influence her guilty verdict. The 11 other jurors testified on Monday morning. All except one, identified as Juror Z, said Hill did not influence their decision on a guilty verdict.
Juror Z testified that Hill made comments before Murdaugh took the stand during the trial, urging her to “watch his actions” and “to watch him closely.”
“She made it seem like he was already guilty,” Juror Z said, testifying that the comments affected her finding of a guilty verdict.
She also said Hill spent “a lot” of time in the jury room toward the end of the trial.
During Juror Z’s testimony, some jurors watched her answer questions live from their cell phones in the jury room. Their phones were confiscated when Judge Toal was made aware of the issue. The jurors all testified that it did not have any impact on their answers Monday.
Murdaugh’s defense attorney Dick Harpootlian asked to question Juror Z, but the judge denied the request.
On the stand, Hill denied telling the jurors to watch Murdaugh’s body language or that the defense might try to “confuse” them. She admitted she told the jury to pay attention in general, but not to one side or the other. She also denied riding home with a juror one night after court.
“I had not communicated with jurors about anything related to this trial,” Hill said. “At all.”
Murdaugh’s defense attorney Dick Harpootlian grilled Hill on the stand about the book she published shortly after Murdaugh was convicted. The book has since been pulled from publication after Hill admitted to plagiarizing part of it. She said she didn’t lie about anything in the book but admitted to taking some “poetic license” with parts of it.
Harpootlian and the defense contend that Hill, motivated by a desire to sell more books, pushed for the jury to quickly reach a guilty verdict. They tried to poke holes in Hill’s testimony, calling an alternate juror and Barnwell County Clerk of Court Rhonda McElveen to the stand.
McElveen said Hill told her that she took a juror home after court one night during the trial, but said she didn’t discuss the case and a bailiff was present.
“Becky, you don’t do things like that,” McElveen testified telling Hill at the time.
Murdaugh’s team also produced an e-mail Hill sent to a Japanese film crew telling them to “get rid of” law enforcement body camera footage she sent them that showed Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s bodies.
Prosecutor Creighton Waters said the footage was mislabeled – it should have been marked as sealed – and the court “immediately clawed it back” when they realized the mistake.
In her ruling, Toal, the former chief justice for the South Carolina Supreme Court, said Hill was taken by the “siren call of celebrity” and did not find her testimony completely believable. However, she also said that Hill’s actions did not have enough of an effect to warrant a new murder trial, especially in such a lengthy case as this.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson issued the following statement on Toal’s decision, which upholds the state’s conviction:
“As with all cases, the Attorney General’s office and SLED’s only mission is to seek the truth and deliver justice, wherever the facts lead. It does not matter your name, position, or status, no one is above the law. We take very seriously the allegations in this situation and immediately requested an investigation, committed to discovering the truth, regardless of what it might find. 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.”
Murdaugh, who has maintained he is innocent in the murders of Maggie and Paul, will continue to appeal his conviction.
Below is the full blog from the proceedings: