A South Carolina judge on Monday denied Alex Murdock's bid for a new trial.
Judge Jean Dole ruled that although Colleton County Clerk Becky Hill told jurors to look at Murdock's actions and body language, she failed to prove that such comments directly influenced their decision to convict him.
Murdock returned to a South Carolina courtroom on Monday, but this timeThe thief, who barred a lawyer and confessed, did not attract attention.
Instead, it's the jurorsHis wife and son were shot dead when Dole inquired , affected their confidence. Murta was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The first juror questioned Monday said Hill told jurors to monitor Murdock's actions and “keep a close eye on him.”
“He already looked guilty,” said the woman, identified only as Juror Z. Asked if this affected his vote to convict him, he said “yes ma'am”.
In later questioning, the juror said he supported his assertion months earlier that he had persuaded his fellow jurors to vote guilty, rather than the judge's statements.
Several jurors who were later called said that they had heard nothing from the writer about the case, and that nothing outside the testimony and evidence had influenced their verdict. One person said they heard Hill say “watch his body language” before Murdock testified, but said his comment didn't change his mind.
Each juror's testimony lasted only about three minutes, as the judge asked the same questions from his writing sheet.
In another surprising twist, a bailiff interrupted the trial by saying that jurors' cellphones were not taken from them when they arrived in court, so many were able to watch live court TV and hear everything the first juror had to say.
Despite the setback, the judge said he would continue recording the jurors' testimony and resumed the trial after a short break, in part to calm himself down, he said. “We're going to get through this,” he declared.
The unusual hearing comes in response to allegations of misconduct by Murdoch's lawyers.
Hill is expected to be grilled by Murdock prosecutors, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole as a prosecutor in his small state.
Jury disruption is the basis for Murdock's appeal, but Judge Dole's rulings after a preliminary hearing this monthHis lawyers have to prove.
Dole ruled that Dole must prove that possible misconduct, including comments by Hill warning jurors not to believe Murdoch when he testified directly, led jurors to change their minds to convict.
If they prove that the jury was tampered with, it doesn't matter if a juror openly says they changed their verdict, because the influence is subtle and prevents Murdock from getting a fair trial.
“According to the State, if Ms. Hill decorated the jury room like a grade-school classroom with colorful signs reading 'Murdock Guilty,' that would not violate Mr. Murdock's right to a fair trial. They should not testify that they voted guilty because of the decoration,” the defense wrote in a brief.
Dole did not allow trial judge Clifton Newman to call as a witness, or any attorneys or other court employees who appeared to be convinced of Hill Murta's guilt or tried to influence the case.
The judge limited what could be asked of Hill. Dole told prosecutors that he could not question the selected writer about a criminal investigation announced by government agents about whether he used his office for financial gain, emailed prosecutors with advice on how to discredit a defense expert, and conspired with his son. County phones, or plagiarized part of his book about the case by using a column from a BBC reporter who accidentally sent an email with the same address instead of his boss.
“I'm very reluctant to turn this inquiry into juror contact into a wholesale examination of every single conduct of the clerk,” Dole said.
CBS News legal analyst Ricky Kleiman said it's unusual for jurors to be ordered to testify.
“It's very rare,” Kleiman said. “This will not be a clerk's hearing,” the judge said. So what this judge wants to know is whether the judgment was actually affected by any action by the court clerk.
Attorney Eric Plant is representing five jurors, one of whom has already testified.
“I'm sure they'll say they made a fair judgment,” Plant told CBS News.
Hill, in a sworn statement, denied tampering with any jury.
Murdoch, 55, appeared at the hearing in a prison jumpsuit. Even if he gets a new murder case, he won't walk away free.After he admitted stealing $12 million from his law firm, from settlements he obtained for clients in wrongful death and serious injury cases. As part of his plea deal, Murdock promised not to appeal the conviction.
But Murdoch has remained adamant that he did not shoot his youngest son, Paul, and that he did not kill his wife, Maggie. Since he told deputies he found their bodies in a Colleton County home in 2021. He testified in his own defense.
Jurors, who remain anonymous, were allowed to enter the Richland County Courthouse through a private entrance. The trial was televised, but their faces could not be shown and they were identified only by their juror numbers.
“No one is above the law, no matter your name, rank or status,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement Monday evening. “After that thorough investigation and fair public hearing, it is clear that Alex Murta's convictions for the murders of Maggie and Paul are based solely on the facts and evidence of the case. It is time to move on.”
Murdoch hasn't even begun the usual appeals of his conviction, where his lawyers are expected to argue several reasons why his murder case was unfair, including the judge's allowing overwhelming evidence of his financial crimes. They said it helped prosecutors smear Murdoch with evidence not directly related to the murders.