It wasn’t long after a Colleton County jury found Alex Murhaugh guilty in early March of killing his wife and son that his lawyers say they began to get suspicious. There were whispers that something had happened in the jury room, said one of Murdaugh’s attorneys, Jim Griffin.
But when attorneys — driving Columbia lawyer Dick Harpootlian’s Mercedes down dirt roads to knock on doors — tried to speak to jurors, they were met with a “zone of silence,” Griffin said. No jurors would speak to them.
But around the beginning of August, Murdaugh’s defense team received an unexpected break when Rebecca “Becky” Hill, the Colleton County clerk of court, published a behind-the-scenes look at the trial.
“That zone of silence collapsed,” Griffin said at a well-attended press conference Tuesday afternoon on the State House grounds in front of the South Carolina Court of Appeals. A thick crowd of South Carolina and national journalists listened and asked questions.
Griffin and Harpootlian now say that they have secured affidavits from two jurors, as well as sworn affidavits by Murdaugh defense team staffer Holli Miller, that summarized interviews the defense team had with two other jurors. The affidavits were included in a 65-page filing that was made public earlier Tuesday morning.
In the filing and an accompanying letter to U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Adair Boroughs, the lawyers requested an FBI investigation of the jurors and a new trial for Murdaugh.
While no one juror had the full story, Murdaugh’s attorneys say that taken together the affidavits show that Hill repeatedly and significantly violated Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial. Among other actions, she is alleged to have had a juror improperly dismissed, encouraged jurors not to believe Murdaugh’s testimony and pressured jurors to reach a quick verdict.
“The allegations in the petition filed today speak for themselves, but we believe that they explain a number of peculiarities in the six-week trial,” Harpootlian said.
“We never considered the likelihood, that’s been reported to us by the jurors, that the clerk of court would go into the sanctity of the jury room and tell the jurors ‘don’t be fooled by his (Murdaugh’s) testimony, watch out for his (Murdaugh’s) body language,’” Griffin said. “If that is true, which we have every reason to believe that it is and no reason to believe that it is not, there is no choice but the courts to grant a new trial.”
Speaking to the press, Columbia attorney Joe McCullough, who is representing two of the jurors, said that they had come forward “reluctantly.”
Asked about their motivations, McCullough demurred and said it could be “whether it comes from a sense or some reaction to some public statements or events or it comes from a wellspring of simply wanting to do what is right, I don’t want to characterize their motivations at all.”
McCullough said that Hill was a friend, and drew parallels between the situation and “false starts” in track racing, when athletes sometimes leave the block too early. “Sometimes it’s because of the intent to gain an edge. Sometimes it’s simply anxiety, nerves, inexperience.”
But, he warned, “what happens from here is a defining moment for our court system.”
Murdaugh’s attorneys have called for the FBI to investigate the allegations against Hill, who they say violated Murdaugh’s civil rights in her capacity as an elected official. Notably, they have requested that SLED “stand down” on investigating any of these claims. The lawyers said that South Carolina’s leading law enforcement agency was too invested in the case to investigate the allegations of jury tampering.
Asked if Hill should stay in her position, Harpootlian offered a quick “no comment.”
Murdaugh’s attorneys were emphatic that the allegations of tampering did not extend to Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman, who presided over the six-week trial.
“There’s no suggestion that the judge did anything untoward,” Griffin said. The lawyers indicated that they intended to call Newman as a witness.
With the filing, the attorneys say that they are hoping to expand their investigation into other jurors with new and expanded powers to collect evidence and compel testimony via subpoena.
The jurors who have come forward so far have been women, Griffin said, which reflected a split that occurred between the jurors naturally separating into different jury rooms along gender lines. The attorneys said that much of what Hill has been accused of took place in the jury room with the women.
Asked if they had other new evidence, Griffin told the crowd, “If we’re lucky enough to get a second trial, you’ll have to see then.”