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‘Attracted by the siren call of celebrity’: What an Alex Murdaugh judge said about the clerk accused of jury tampering

<i>Tracy Glantz/The State/Pool/AP/File via CNN Newsource</i><br/>
Tracy Glantz/The State/Pool/AP/File via CNN Newsource

By Zoe Sottile and Dianne Gallagher, CNN

(CNN) — As South Carolina Judge Jean Toal denied disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh’s request for a new murder trial on Monday evening, she had some harsh remarks about the county clerk at the center of the Murdaugh legal team’s jury tampering allegations.

Colleton County Clerk of Court Rebecca Hill was “attracted by the siren call of celebrity,” Toal said in her announcement of the ruling.

“She wanted to write a book about the trial and expressed that as early as November 2022, long before the trial began,” the judge said.

Toal noted Hill has denied this, but the judge found Hill had stated to another clerk and others “her desire for a guilty verdict because it would sell books.”

Murdaugh, 55, was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for the 2021 murders of his wife and son. He and his legal team have sought to overturn the verdict and request a new trial, arguing Hill tampered with the jury by making comments implying Murdaugh’s guilt to jurors.

“She made comments about Murdaugh’s demeanor as he testified and she made some of those comments before he testified to at least one and maybe more jurors,” Toal said. “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.”

While the jurors did their job “without fear or favor,” Hill “allowed public attention of the moment to overcome her duty,” the judge said.

“I simply do not believe that the authority of our South Carolina 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 courts,” the judge, a retired justice on the state’s high court, said.

Toal said she had personally interviewed each juror and studied the complete transcript of the weeks-long trial to make her ruling. Eleven jurors said that either they had heard no comments from Hill or that if they had, the comments hadn’t affected their votes. One juror was “ambivalent” in her testimony and said that she only felt pressure from other jurors, according to Toal.

The jurors “obeyed the instructions of the court, they obeyed their oath,” Toal said. “These good and decent citizens of Colleton County did their duty and rendered their verdict without fear or favor. It was a difficult task.”

The judge described the case as unique in her decades-long career for multiple reasons, including that the jury tampering allegations were raised months after the verdict, whereas most similar allegations are made shortly after.

“I do not find that I abused my discretion when I find the defendant’s motion for a new trial on the factual record before me must be denied,” she said.

What did Hill allegedly say to jurors?

The jury tampering case centered on statements allegedly made by Hill to jurors about Murdaugh’s guilt. Hill has denied the allegations, and she did so again while testifying at the hearing Monday afternoon.

The first juror questioned Monday, identified as Juror Z, testified she was influenced by remarks Hill made, telling the judge she heard the clerk say to “watch his actions” and to “watch him closely.” Hill’s comments, Juror Z said, “made it seem like he was already guilty.”

Juror Z was also asked about an affidavit where she indicated she had questions about Murdaugh’s guilt but voted for a guilty verdict “because I felt pressure by the other jurors.” Asked by the judge if it was “a more accurate statement of how you felt,” the juror said, “Yes, ma’am,” affirming she stood by the affidavit.

Toal described pressure from jurors as a normal part of the jury deliberation process during her Monday ruling.

The affidavit also said prior to Murdaugh testifying, Hill told the jurors “not to be fooled” by evidence offered by the defense. The juror wrote she took it as an indication Murdaugh would lie.

The other 11 jurors denied being influenced, though two others said they also heard comments made by the clerk when Murdaugh took the stand to testify.

Hill’s attorneys Justin Bamberg and Will Lewis said they “respect” Toal’s ruling denying the request for a new trial.

“We agree with Justice Toal’s finding that the Colleton County jurors selected for this very complicated and lengthy trial were consummate professionals and operated within the instructions of the court,” said her attorneys. “We thank them for their service.”

Hill is also the subject of two open investigations, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed in a statement this month: one “regarding her alleged interactions with” Murdaugh’s jury, and the other “regarding allegations she used her elected position for personal gain.”

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