What’s next for Alex Murdaugh’s appeal and Clerk of Court Becky Hill?

Alex Murdaugh did not get a new trial Monday, but his appeals process is far from over. And while a judge ruled that “fleeting” comments from Becky Hill were not enough to win Murdaugh a new trial, investigations and complaints continue to swirl around the embattled Colleton County Clerk of Court.

On Monday, South Carolina Judge Jean Toal ruled against Alex Murdaugh’s motion for a new trial. The disbarred Hampton County attorney, who was convicted of murdering his wife, Maggie, and son Paul in June 2021, launched the effort after Hill was accused of tampering with jury at his trial.

Ruling from the bench, Toal was unsparing in her criticism of Hill. While she agreed with many of the facts presented by the defense and accused the first term clerk of court of having been “seduced by the siren call of celebrity,” Toal was clear that she did not believe that the defense had met the high bar of proving that Hill’s actions had swayed any juror into returning a guilty verdict.

“Each member of this jury took their involuntary assignment very seriously. They obeyed the instructions of the court. They obeyed their oath. These good and decent citizens of Colleton County stood to their duty and rendered their verdict without fear or favor,” Toal said.

But as one chapter of the Murdaugh case closes, another will surely begin. Murdaugh’s attorneys have vowed that the appeals process is continuing, and higher courts will soon have the opportunity to take up key questions from the jury tampering hearing.

“It’s just one step in the process,” Murdaugh attorney Jim Griffin said at a news conference immediately following the hearing. “If we’d won today, the state would be appealing.”

While Toal ruled from the bench Monday, all parties must now wait for an official transcript, which the state will then use to prepare an order. Murduagh’s defense attorneys will have an opportunity to submit suggestions. Once that order is finalized, attorneys will have 10 days to file an appeal.

Dick Harpootlian, another of Murdaugh’s defense attorneys, confirmed that they already intend to file an appeal.

Several lawyers told The State it’s possible that Murdaugh’s two appeals could be combined into one case by higher courts. Appelate courts will not rule on the facts of the case, which have been decided by the jury. Instead, they will determine whether the law has been followed.

“Early on she (Toal) acknowledged, we all acknowledged, this was not going to be the final say-so on the law, that is going to be determined by the appellate courts,” Griffin said Monday.

Asked how far they could appeal it, Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator from Richland County, said they would appeal in federal court if South Carolina courts do not rule in their favor.

If Murdaugh’s attorneys believe that his constitutional right to a fair trial has been violated, there are multiple ways that case can make it into federal court, said Jay Bender, a prominent South Carolina attorney with nearly 50 years of experience who has twice had cases appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bender has represented The State.

Once the case has been appealed all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court, attorneys can directly petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case. Murdaugh’s attorneys could also file what’s known as a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina. From there it could progress to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is located in Richmond, Virginia, and covers Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“It would be extraordinary at any time for this case to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bender said, “but it could happen.”

Either way, the process will be long. Before they make a ruling, higher courts will likely sift through a six-week trial transcript and hundreds of pages of other court documents.

An appeal through all the state and federal courts could take up to five years, lawyers say, but it’s hard to predict as an appeal can get bogged down at any stage.

I’ve had appellate courts rule as quickly as the day of oral arguments and I’ve had other cases where the appellate court ruled a couple of years after oral arguments,” said Bender.

While Griffin and Harpootlian work on appeals, the state Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, has said “It is time to move on from Alex Murdaugh.”

But the office has invested considerable resources in securing Murdaugh’s murder convictions with a lengthy investigation and trial.

Legal experts say that should the state lose at any step of the appeals process, the Attorney General’s Office will almost certainly appeal the case to the next, higher court.

One of the key and most discussed issues at Murdaugh’s jury tampering hearing was the standard for determining whether a new trial was warranted.

Toal adopted a standard taken from a 2020 case known as South Carolina vs. Green. In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled that contact with the jury was not presumed to be prejudicial. Instead, the defense had to prove that not only were there inappropriate contacts with jurors, but that the contacts also influenced their verdict.

In contrast, the defense repeatedly urged Toal to adopt the precedent outlined in Remmer v. United States, a federal case. In Remmer, the U.S. Supreme Court found that making inappropriate statements to the jury was presumed to be prejudicial and it was up to the state to prove they were not.

It remains to be seen whether the state Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court adopts the federal standard when the justices rule on Murdaugh’s appeal. If they stick with the SC v. Green standard, will a federal appeals courts impose the Remmer vs. United States standard?

In the meantime, Murdaugh’s attorneys say that they are still pursuing leads about who actually killed Maggie and Paul.

“We have developed some information. We want to get this (hearing) behind us and we’ll be pursuing that in the near future,” Harpootlian said. In a phone call Tuesday, he declined to provide any further details.

Even if his attorneys succeed in winning him a new trial, Murdaugh is currently serving 27 years after he pleaded guilty to state financial crimes. He must serve a mandatory 85% of that sentence. He is still awaiting sentencing on federal financial crimes.

What’s next for Becky Hill?

During last year’s trial in Walterboro, Hill became something of a minor celebrity as she charmed journalists, attorneys, and trial watchers with her humor and Southern hospitality. But in the year since the trial ended, the first-term clerk of court has become controversial.

Many were shocked by the allegations made about Hill in the defense’s motion. They were even more shocked as the controversies continued to mount. Two ethics complaints were filed against Hill, and she admitted plagiarizing part of the book she co-wrote on the Murdaugh trial, which ended the book sales. Her co-author, Neil Gordon, has since said that he plans to donate the money he made.

Her son, Jeffrey Hill, also was criminally charged with wiretapping and fired from his job as Colleton County technology director. Earlier this month, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed that it had opened two investigations into Becky Hill.

They could be looking into charges of obstruction of justice or misconduct in office, said Jack Swerling, a veteran defense attorney who previously practiced with Harpootlian.

On Monday, Hill testified for roughly an hour and a half. She flatly denied many of the charges laid out against her in affidavits and testimony from jurors. Among other statements, she said that she had not planned to write a book before or during the trial; she never rode in a vehicle with a juror during the trial; and never told jurors to pay special attention to Murdaugh’s body language.

But three jurors and one alternate testified that Hill made statements about Murdaugh’s body language. And Rhonda McElveen, Barnwell County’s clerk of court, said Hill told her during the trial that she planned to write a book, and that Hill admitted driving a juror home.

Toal said that she found Hill “not completely credible.” In her ruling, she found that Hill had made statements about Murdaugh’s demeanor and expressed a desire for a guilty verdict because it would be better for the sales of a book she planned to write.

So does that mean Hill committed perjury on Monday? Swerling, who once defended a Lexington County deputy solicitor from charges of perjury, said officials would have a high bar to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did.

“Not only would they have to prove that it was an untruthful statement but that it was a material statement and an intentional statement,” Swerling said. Perjury cases are rare. In a more than 50-year career, Swerling estimates that he has only defended three or four perjury cases.

With the plagiarism admission, the ethics allegations and a criminal investigation, some have asked on social media why Hill hasn’t been suspended from office. As an elected official, Hill can only be removed by the governor if a criminal indictment is filed against her.

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