SC attorney general reports ‘factual disputes’ with Alex Murdaugh’s jury tampering claim

Citing procedural issues, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is asking an appeals court to dismiss convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh’s motion for a new trial in the killing of his wife and son.

Wilson also indicated that a law enforcement investigation into defense allegations of jury tampering has turned up “significant factual disputes” with those allegations, set forth in a motion for a new trial last week by Murdaugh’s attorneys in their appeal.

That investigation, by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, ”remains ongoing,” the attorney general’s filing said.

The SLED agents involved in the jury tampering investigation are not the same SLED agents who carried out the Murdaugh murder investigation and who testified during the trial, the Attorney General’s filing said.

But the state’s top prosecutor also did not rule out a new hearing in front of trial judge Clifton Newman to hash out the claims raised by defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian.

“It may well be that suspension of the appeal and a remand (sending the case back to the trial court) for an evidentiary hearing will be necessary to properly resolve some of the serious claims raised by Appellant in the motion he intends to file,” the attorney general’s filing said. “If no credible evidence can be found to support the claims brought by Appellant, the State will be prepared to argue against the motion before the Honorable Clifton B. Newman on remand.”

In their Sept. 5 filing, Murdaugh’s attorneys had asked for just such a hearing, which would take place in state court, likely before Newman, who presided over the six-week Murdaugh murder trial. Jurors deliberated just three hours. Newman sentenced Murdaugh to two consecutive life terms for murder in the fatal shootings of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul at the family estate in rural Colleton County.

Last week’s defense filing claimed that comments to jurors by Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill improperly influenced the jury that convicted Murdaugh. That influencing took place out of public view during the trial, Murdaugh’s defense team said.

Hill is alleged to have made repeated negative statements about Murdaugh’s credibility, telling them, for example, “not to be ‘fooled by’ Mr. Murdaugh’s testimony in his own defense,” the defense filing said.

Hill, 55, an elected county official whose job during the trial put her in close contact with jurors, has not commented on the allegations. She has hired two high profile criminal lawyers, Will Lewis and Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, to represent her.

The attorney general’s motion said the ongoing SLED investigation has “already revealed significant factual disputes as to claims in (Murdaugh’s) motion.”

However, Joe McCulloch, a Columbia lawyer who represents two jurors, said his jurors have not yet been interviewed. In any case, McCulloch said, he hoped the attorney general would be focused on “justice” and getting to the truth of what happened.

McCulloch also said he was disappointed that the attorney general’s filing seemed to emphasize “technicalities” rather than the key question of whether Hill tampered with the jury.

McCulloch was referring to the argument by Wilson in his filing that the defense team’s motion did not include an affidavit personally signed by Murdaugh, a document required under court rules.

The attorney general’s response also questions when Murdaugh’s defense team learned of the potential jury issues. Wilson says that in order for the appeal to be granted, Murdaugh and his defense team must have learned of the potential jury tampering after the trial was over and taken prompt action at that time. The prosecution’s filing raises questions about whether Murdaugh’s attorneys knew about the issue while the trial was ongoing but didn’t raise them until Sept. 5.

Last week, the defense team said it didn’t learn of the alleged jury tampering until after Hill published a book in late July or early August and began promoting it as an insider’s behind-the-scenes view of the Murdaugh trial. Some jurors took issue with what Hill wrote and contacted the defense lawyers, the defense team said.

Hill tampered with the jury “to secure for herself a book deal and media appearances that would not happen in the event of a mistrial,” the defense team’s Sept. 5 filing said. “Ms. Hill betrayed her oath of office for money and fame.”

The attorney general’s office asked the Court of Appeals to give the defense teams 10 days to file a reply correcting any procedural defects and “establish precisely when and how it is he first learned of these allegations.”

At a later date, it may be necessary for Newman to “consider the credibility of the claims in light of the significant factual disputes which undermine the credibility of the claims.” The attorney general’s filing gave no details about what it called the “significant factual disputes.”

Griffin, a defense attorney, said, “We will file a formal reply by early next week. But it clearly appears the state is not contesting the need for an evidentiary hearing.”

“Frankly, we thought they would be submitting their own affidavits, contradicting or at a minimum casting doubt on our affidavits. But they did not submit anything of that sort,” Griffin said. “It sounds like we need an evidentiary hearing.”

In their 65-page filing, defense attorneys Harpootlian and Griffin requested that Murdaugh be given a new trial.

The sensational tampering allegations, amplified at the Sept. 5 press conference that attracted more than 75 media and interested lawyers, made national news in newspapers such as The New York Times and generated a new frenzy of interest in the already well-publicized Murdaugh murder case.

As proof of the defense team’s delay in bringing allegations of jury tampering at the time they allegedly happened, the attorney general’s motion cites that Sept. 5 press conference when Harpootlian indicated that he may have gotten an inkling of jury tampering during Murdaugh’s trial but didn’t report them. Harpootlian told reporters, “I think... we observed it... I was there. I watched it.”

The motion also cites an interview Griffin gave to ABC’s Good Morning America on Sept. 6, in which he said “soon after the trial... actually, as soon as the verdict was rendered, we had gotten some indication from folks in the courtroom that there was something untoward that had happened in the jury room. We didn’t know exactly what, um, and we went on a campaign to find out what.”

“A review of the motion does not reveal precisely when or how it is he learned of the claims he now raises,” the prosecutors’ brief says of Murdaugh, adding that a successful move for a new trial “must show that he did not know of the existence of such evidence at the time of the trial... or that he could not have discovered it by the exercise of due diligence.”

Arguing that requests for a new trial should be treated cautiously, the attorney general’s team quotes from a “learned judge” who ruled in a previous case. “[I]t would have a mischievous tendency, after all the evidence on the part of the state had been fully disclosed, to allow one, with his life in danger, an opportunity, by the assistance of confederates, to procure unprincipled witnesses to contradict the evidence on the part of the state, and thereby defeat the ends of justice.”

The defense filing contained sworn affidavits by two people who served on the jury, as well as sworn affidavits by defense team staffer Holli Miller that summarized interviews the defense team had with two other jurors. In the filing, the jurors’ names were blacked out.

Harpootlian also wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney Adair Boroughs requesting an FBI investigation. Both the filing and the letter say the alleged jury tampering denied Murdaugh his right to a fair jury trial. The U.S. Attorney’s office had no comment.

An FBI investigation is necessary, Harpootlian wrote, because SLED has a “vested interest” in upholding the verdict and cannot be relied upon to impartially question jurors.

SLED Chief Mark Keel could not be reached for comment.