Defense attorneys said Murdaugh, 55, deserved a new trial, claiming misconduct from Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill persuaded a jury to find him guilty of murdering his wife and son.
Judge Jean Toal ruled that even if Hill did tell jurors to watch Murdaugh’s actions and body language on the stand, the defense failed to prove that such comments directly influenced their decision to find him guilty.
Murdaugh’s six-week murder trial, which concluded in March 2023, became a sensation with its mix of privilege, brutality and power. The judges, lawyers and Hill herself all became minor celebrities.
FILE - Alex Murdaugh stands next to the witness booth during a break in his trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
New trial denied
During Monday’s hearing, one member of the jury that convicted Murdaugh of murdering his wife and son testified that Hill made the comments and it indicated to her she thought Murdaugh was guilty.
But the 11 other jurors said they based their guilty verdicts only on the testimony, evidence and law presented at trial, and just one mentioned hearing anything similar.
The judge said she couldn’t overturn the verdict based "on the strength of some fleeting and foolish comments by a publicity-seeking clerk of court," according to the Associated Press.
Defense attorney Jim Griffin, in his closing statements, cited case law in arguing that any communication about a case from court staff to jurors is presumptively prejudicial. He said the defense clearly proved Hill made prejudicial comments to the jury, and "one of those jurors says it influenced my verdict. How is that not prejudice?"
Jury tampering was the basis for Murdaugh's appeal, but Toal set a difficult standard for his lawyers. She ruled the defense must prove that potential misconduct by Hill directly led jurors to change their minds to guilty.
The defense argued if they prove the jury was tampered with, it shouldn't matter whether a juror openly said their verdict changed, because even subtle influence could have kept Murdaugh from getting a fair trial.
The judge also limited what could be asked of Hill, ruling out extensive questions about a criminal investigation into whether the elected clerk used her office for financial gain, emailed prosecutors with suggestions on how to discredit a defense expert, conspired with her son who is charged with wiretapping county phones, or plagiarized part of her book on the case using a passage from a BBC reporter who accidentally emailed her instead of her boss with a similar address.
"I’m very, very reluctant to turn this hearing about juror contact into a wholesale exploration about every piece of conduct by the clerk," Toal said.
Hill, in a sworn statement, has denied any jury tampering. She did admit to lifting the writing of the BBC reporter.
FILE - Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill listens as Prosecutor Creighton Waters makes closing arguments in Alex Murdaugh's trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on March 1, 2023, in Walterboro, South Carolina. (Joshua Boucher/Pool/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
"I did plagiarize ... and for that I am sorry," Hill said from the stand.
Even if this effort failed, Murdaugh hasn't even started the regular appeals of his sentence, where his lawyers are expected to argue a number of reasons why his murder trial was unfair, including the judge allowing voluminous testimony of his financial crimes.
He's currently serving 27 years after admitting he stole $12 million from his law firm and from settlements he gained for clients on wrongful death and serious injury lawsuits. Murdaugh promised not to appeal that sentence as part of his plea deal.
Murdaugh convicted of murder
FILE - Evidence shown in Alex Murdaugh's trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Walterboro, South Carolina. (Joshua Boucher/Pool/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Murdaugh was convicted of murdering his wife and son in March 2023.
The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding Murdaugh guilty of two counts of murder.
His 52-year-old wife, Maggie, was shot four or five times with a rifle and their 22-year-old son Paul was shot twice with a shotgun at the kennels near their rural Colleton County home on June 7, 2021.
Prosecutors didn’t have the weapons used to kill the Murdaughs or other direct evidence like confessions or blood spatter. But they had a mountain of circumstantial evidence, led by a video locked on the son’s cellphone for more than a year — video shot minutes before the killings that witnesses testified captured the voices of all three Murdaughs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.