At the climax of one of the most closely watched trials in South Carolina history, the packed courtroom was silent except for one woman: the court clerk, who read the guilty verdicts aloud in March 2023 that put Alex Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, in prison for life for the murder of his wife and son.
Now, a new court hearing is getting underway on Monday to determine whether the clerk, Rebecca Hill, improperly influenced the jurors who voted to convict Mr. Murdaugh, 55, and whether Mr. Murdaugh should have a new trial.
A state police agency is investigating allegations from Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers that Ms. Hill made comments during the trial that could have influenced the jurors’ votes. Among the allegations are that Ms. Hill told jurors not to be “fooled” by Mr. Murdaugh’s defense, that she had private conversations with a juror, and that she told jurors before they started deliberating that “this shouldn’t take us long.”
Ms. Hill has not been charged, and she has denied many of the most serious allegations. She and the jurors are expected to testify on Monday at a hearing in Columbia, S.C., that is part of Mr. Murdaugh’s appeal of his convictions.
Judge Jean Toal, a former chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, will determine what Ms. Hill did, whether her actions may have altered the outcome of the trial and whether Mr. Murdaugh should get a new trial. It is not yet known whether she will rule from the bench on Monday or issue an opinion later.
The allegations against Ms. Hill, which Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers first raised in September, are another twist in the tragic tale of the Murdaugh murders, a crime that has horrified and fascinated observers around the country since June 2021, when Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and their younger son, Paul, were shot to death.
Mr. Murdaugh has always maintained his innocence. But a key video shown at his trial revealed that he was at the family’s dog kennels with his wife and son shortly before they were killed, contradicting his claim that he had not been with them at that time. Jurors deliberated for less than three hours before returning the guilty verdicts that Ms. Hill read.
Mr. Murdaugh had been stealing millions of dollars from clients and law partners for years before the murders. Prosecutors said in the murder trial that he had carried out the killings in a bizarre, failed attempt to gain sympathy and stop his law firm from scrutinizing his finances.
Though he is challenging his murder convictions, Mr. Murdaugh has admitted to having stolen vast sums of money over the years. He pleaded guilty in November to a series of financial crimes and was sentenced to an additional 27 years in prison.
Ms. Hill was a fixture of the courtroom in Walterboro, S.C., during Mr. Murdaugh’s murder trial. She later wrote a book about the trial, the preface of which she recently admitted to plagiarizing from a draft of a BBC article.
Since the allegations against Ms. Hill emerged, several jurors have said in written statements to the police that they did not hear any inappropriate comments from Ms. Hill or feel pressure to convict Mr. Murdaugh.
Lawyers with the South Carolina attorney general’s office who prosecuted the case have argued in court papers that the claims about Ms. Hill are “unfounded and not credible.” They have argued that the recollections of one juror about inappropriate comments from Ms. Hill may be a result of the juror misremembering things that prosecutors had said at trial.
Even if Ms. Hill did make inappropriate comments, the state lawyers argued, the comments were not enough to influence the jurors in their decision.
The hearing is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. on Monday at the Richland County courthouse in Columbia.
Mr. Murdaugh, who has been disbarred, is a fourth-generation lawyer whose family had vast influence in the legal world of South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had each led a prosecutor’s office in the region — in total, for more than 80 years — and the family ran a law firm in the small town of Hampton for even longer.