After months of legal jockeying, Alex Murdaugh’s legal team summed up their pre-hearing brief with this: 

“Mr. Murdaugh alleges that an elected state official deliberately violated his constitutional right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. If that allegation is proven, the law requires a new trial,” wrote lawyer-legislator Dick Harpootlian in a 21-page brief filed on Jan. 3, 2024. 

A hearing on whether or not Alex Murdaugh is entitled to a new trial is tentatively set for January 29-31 in Columbia, with retired state supreme court Justice Jean Hoefler Toal presiding. She was appointed to oversee the issue after Judge Clifton Newman asked to be removed. 

In all, the defense argues eight points in favor of a new trial, including that Murdaugh doesn’t have to demonstrate that the jurors were biased against him in order to get a new trial. 

The defense also argues that the trial jurors should be questioned in camera, meaning that portion of the hearing would not be open to the public. According to their filing, Murdaugh’s defense team is also interested in questioning Judge Newman. 

“If testimony is needed from Judge Newman, Mr. Murdaugh believes it should also be conducted by the court in camera to preserve the dignity of his judicial office,” the brief says in part.

However, Becky Hill, the Colleton County Clerk of Court at the center of the jury tampering allegations, could be questioned in open court according to the defense. 

How Did We Get here? 

The defense team immediately filed notice of an appeal following Murdaugh’s March 2023 conviction of killing his wife and son, but the formal legal argument for the initial appeal was never submitted. Instead, Murdaugh asked to pause his appeal so he could petition for a new trial citing allegations that Hill tampered with the jury during his trial. In a September 2023 filing, the defense team alleged that Hill had improper communication with the jurors and caused the removal of a juror right before deliberations began during the trial. 

That filing prompted the Court of Appeals to hold the appeal in abeyance so Murdaugh could file a motion for a new trial in Colleton County. 

Throughout the fall, further information about Hill surfaced. Hill, who is also the author of a book about the Murdaugh trial, is the subject of an ethics complaint into allegations of misspent funds, using her role as clerk of court to promote her book, and giving preferential treatment to some members of the public who wanted to attend the trial. 

In late December 2023, Hill’s co-author Neil Gordon released a statement indicating that Hill had plagiarized the introduction of her book from a BBC article — the text of which she received on accident when the BBC reporter emailed it to Hill instead of her editor, who was also named  Rebecca. That exchange is detailed in a 2,000-page dump of Hill’s emails. 

AG’s Office: Evidentiary Hearing is Unnecessary

The state maintains that there is no reason to have an evidentiary hearing at the end of the month because Murdaugh’s team has failed to prove that Hill tampered with the jury and that the jury was prejudiced as a result of that contact. 

The state’s pre-hearing brief is significantly shorter, and asks the judge to limit questions and exhibits if she rules in favor of an evidentiary hearing. 

While the evidentiary hearing is tentatively set to begin on January 29, Justice Toal will first hold a public status conference on January 16 at 9:30 a.m. at the Richland County Judicial Center in Columbia. Keep an eye out for information on our plans to bring you live coverage of the status conference and the evidentiary hearing. 

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Contact Beth Braden

Beth Braden

Beth Braden is an award-winning journalist whose mastery of the deep dive is evident in her work.

In addition to Braden’s experience writing about local government, crime and courts, and engaging features from her home state of Tennessee, her byline appears on several internationally-known websites. She is passionate about communicating complex information in an easy-to-understand manner and loves to pore over public records.

Braden joined Luna Shark Media in 2023 armed with a love of truth as she seeks out data from the darkest places, drags it into the light, and provides illuminating analysis. In her spare time, she enjoys quilting, strange museums, and good cups of coffee.

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