AP U.S.

Appeals court allows Alex Murdaugh to argue for new trial because of possible jury tampering

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — An appeals court in South Carolina is allowing Alex Murdaugh to ask a judge to throw out his murder convictions and life sentence and get a new trial after his lawyers accused the court clerk in his trial of influencing the jury.

The one-paragraph decision Tuesday could open the door for a full hearing where witnesses who would have to testify under oath could include Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill, the jurors who deliberated a few hours after the six-week trial and even Judge Clifton Newman, widely praised for overseeing the case.

A time and place or the scope of the hearing will be determined later.

But even if his conviction is overturned, Murdaugh won’t walk out of prison. He pleaded guilty last month to financial crimes for stealing millions of dollars from needy personal injury clients and a settlement for the family of his longtime maid who died in a fall at his home.

Murdaugh is awaiting a judge to hand down a sentence for those crimes that will almost certainly be for years if not decades behind bars.

Murdaugh’s lawyers filed their appeal last month after saying they had heard from three jurors who said Hill told some of them not to trust Murdaugh when he testified in his own defense. They said the court clerk, in charge of helping jurors and ensuring the trial ran efficiently, also had private conversations with the jury foreperson and pressured jurors to come to a quick verdict.

“She asked jurors about their opinions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt or innocence. She instructed them not to believe evidence presented in Mr. Murdaugh’s defense, including his own testimony. She lied to the judge to remove a juror she believed might not vote guilty. And she pressured jurors to reach a guilty verdict quickly so she could profit from it,” defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian wrote.

The attorneys called Tuesday’s ruling welcome news. “We intend to proceed expeditiously and will seek a full blown evidentiary hearing,” they said in a statement.

Hill has spoken little publicly about the allegations and her lawyer didn’t respond to a text message Tuesday. But the author who helped her write a self-published book called “Behind the Doors of Justice: The Murdaugh Murders” asked people to give Hill the same presumption of innocence they were supposed to give Murdaugh during the trial.

Co-author Neil Gordon said Hill was professional, soft-spoken and never pressured anyone.

“I’ve received hundreds of unsolicited comments from visitors and media who were at the trial or who came back to do a tour at the Colleton County Courthouse. They describe her as the quintessential Southern woman of hospitality and grace,” Gordon told the Hampton County Guardian.

Hill’s book discusses how her Christian faith helped her navigate the sudden fame and responsibility that came with the Murdaugh trial. She said she became convinced of Murdaugh’s guilt when jurors and court officials visited the family home where the shootings happened.

She wrote she was nervous as she prepared to read the verdicts. “I was mostly concerned about Alex being found innocent when I knew in my heart he was guilty,” Hill wrote.

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The jury deliberated less than three hours after the six-week trial. At least one juror said Hill told them they would be taken to a hotel if they didn’t reach a verdict by 11 p.m., upsetting jurors who didn’t pack for an overnight stay. Some jurors said Hill also told smokers on the jury that they couldn’t take a cigarette break until they had reached a verdict, according to the defense motion.

“I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by other jurors,” Juror 630 wrote in a sworn statement, adding that Hill pressured the jurors to talk to reporters she had befriended after the trial.

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted Murdaugh, said it had no comment on Tuesday’s ruling and would respond through the courts.

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