Short Take: Courtroom Staff’s Influence

Rarely would anyone ever learn of such a claim if it even happened, as lawyers are wont to harass jurors after a trial even if the verdict included an unpleasant number of words, but it happened in Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial.

The police in South Carolina said on Thursday that they were investigating whether a court clerk improperly communicated with jurors who later convicted Alex Murdaugh for the murder of his wife and son in one of the most famous criminal trials in the state’s history.

The investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division was opened two days after Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers made explosive claims about the clerk, Rebecca Hill, and asked for a new trial for Mr. Murdaugh, the scion of an influential legal family who was sentenced to life in prison in March. Two jurors signed sworn affidavits saying that Ms. Hill had warned jurors not to “be fooled” by Mr. Murdaugh’s defense.

And the clerk, Hill, allegedly had quite a bit more to say to influence the jurors, which was convenient since she wrote a book on the trial.

Together, the affidavits claimed that Ms. Hill had several secret conversations with the jury forewoman and also made comments about the case with other jurors, who are not even supposed to discuss the case with one another until they start deliberating.

One juror’s affidavit said that when deliberations were set to begin, Ms. Hill told jurors, “This shouldn’t take long,” and that if the group could not reach a verdict before 11 p.m., they would be taken directly to a hotel for the night. “I had questions about Mr. Murdaugh’s guilt but voted guilty because I felt pressured by the other jurors,” the affidavit said.

While the parties to the prosecution are directed not to communicate with jurors outside the courtroom, and jurors are told that the lawyers will walk right past them in the hallway, not ever saying “good morning,” because of this prohibition (and that jurors shouldn’t be offended), the clerk is integral to the jury’s function from the start.

The elected court clerk handles mainly administrative matters, such as ordering food for jurors and overseeing logistics for trials, but Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers offered affidavits suggesting that Ms. Hill had personal interactions with several jurors that may have inappropriately influenced the outcome of the case.

For the most part, court staff, including the clerk, stay away from the substance of cases. They’ve seen it a million times, and they have no horse in the race. They do a pretty good job of being neutral, at least in front of the jury as they’re required to be. But should a clerk take a personal interest in the outcome, or have views about the merits of the case that manifest in either snide asides (“this shouldn’t take long”) or more explicit advocacy (“don’t be fooled”), two monumental problems ensure.

First, who would know? In many of the interactions between clerk and juror/jury, there is no one else around to hear what the clerk is saying, and the jurors are unlikely to recognize the improper influence and even less likely to speak up about it if they do.

Second, because the jury is pretty much shunned by everyone else, the clerk becomes their pal during a case. She gets them food. Answers their silly questions. Helps them out. Tell’s the who’s guilty. Pals have influence. You don’t rat out your pal.

Regardless of what happens afterward, few of us would consider the possibility that the court clerk took an active role in trying to influence the outcome of the trial. The neutrality of the staff cannot, and should not, be taken for granted, although I would still argue that most court staff would do nothing improper and, frankly, wouldn’t give the outcome a second thought.


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