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Alex Murdaugh judge steps down from case as killer fights for new trial

The judge who sentenced Alex Murdaugh to life in prison for the murders of his wife and son has stepped down from all future proceedings in the case as the convicted killer fights for a new trial.

In a court filing on Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman “requested that a new judge be assigned to handle the post-trial motions involving the murder charges”.

The order, signed by all five South Carolina high court justices, outlined that – while Judge Newman wishes to recuse himself from the murder case – he will continue to preside over the disgraced legal scion’s trial on a slew of financial fraud charges.

The decision comes as Murdaugh is fighting to be granted a new trial for the June 2021 murders of his wife Maggie and son Paul based on bombshell accusations of jury tampering involving the court clerk.

In September, Murdaugh’s attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin filed a motion accusing court clerk Becky Hill of breaking her oath by tampering with the jury and pressuring them into returning a guilty verdict against him.

They claim that she advised the panel not to be “fooled by” Murdaugh’s testimony on the stand or “misled” by the defence’s evidence, pushed them to reach a quick guilty verdict, and misrepresented “critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favorable to the defense”.

Ms Hill has denied the allegations.

In a sworn statement filed last week, the state branded the allegations as “a sweeping conspiratorial theory” and said that “not every inappropriate comment made by a member of court staff to a juror rises to the level of constitutional error”.

Based on the claims, Murdaugh’s legal team has demanded that the disbarred attorney be granted a new murder trial and called for the removal of Judge Newman from the case.

They argued that the judge would potentially be called as a witness in hearings involving the jury tampering allegations and also questioned his impartiality based on comments he has made about the case.

Alex Murdaugh in court on financial fraud charges (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Alex Murdaugh in court on financial fraud charges (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Handing down Murdaugh’s two life sentences back in March, Judge Newman told the killer that he will have to deal with what he did every night when he closes his eyes.

“You have to see Paul and Maggie during the nighttime when you’re attempting to go to sleep. I’m sure they come and visit you. I’m sure,” he said at his sentencing hearing on 3 March in Colleton County Courthouse.

In the aftermath of the trial, the judge also made comments publicly – including in an appearance on NBC’s Today show.

“I cannot imagine him having a peaceful night knowing what he did,” he said.

“I’m sure if he had an opportunity to do it over again, he’d never do it.”

The judge and Murdaugh will now come face to face in court in Beaufort County once again on Friday morning for a hearing in the financial fraud case.

Murdaugh’s financial crimes trial is currently slated to begin on 27 November – though his legal team is calling for a delay as well as a change in venue due to the high-profile nature of the case.

As part of Thursday’s order, the South Carolina justices also denied the motion to delay the trial, ruling that it “shall go forward as planned”.

In total, Murdaugh faced more than 100 state and federal charges over his vast multi-million-dollar fraud scheme where he stole millions of dollars from law firm clients for more than a decade.

According to prosecutors, Murdaugh worked with co-conspirators and friends ex-attorney Cory Fleming and ex-Palmetto State Bank CEO Russell Laffitte to swindle clients out of millions of dollars.

Clifton Newman at Murdaugh’s sentencing at murder trial (AP)
Clifton Newman at Murdaugh’s sentencing at murder trial (AP)

Among the victims was the family of Murdaugh’s dead housekeeper Gloria Satterfield – who died in a mystery trip and fall at the family estate in 2018. Murdaugh allegedly stole more than $4m in a wrongful death suit payout from the family.

Fleming and Laffitte have already been convicted in federal court for their part in the convicted killer’s white-collar fraud scheme, with the former sentenced to four years and the latter to seven years.

In September, Murdaugh pleaded guilty to the trove of 22 federal financial charges including wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud.

While Murdaugh admitted to stealing millions from clients during bombshell courtroom testimony at his murder trial, his guilty plea marked the first time that he had ever pleaded guilty to committing a crime.

Now, he faces up to 30 years in federal prison on some of the charges.

Under the agreement, federal prosecutors have agreed that the sentence would be served concurrently with any state conviction on the same charges in his November trial.

The financial crimes mark just the latest twist in the saga of the Murdaugh dynasty who shot to national attention following the brutal murders.

Maggie and Paul were found shot dead on the family’s 1,700-acre Moselle estate back on 7 June 2021. Alex Murdaugh had called 911 claiming to have found their bodies.

During his high-profile murder trial, jurors heard how Paul was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun while he stood in the feed room of the dog kennels on the affluent family’s 1,700-acre Moselle estate. The second shot to his head blew his brain almost entirely out of his skull.

After killing Paul, prosecutors said Murdaugh then grabbed a .300 Blackout semiautomatic rifle and opened fire on Maggie as she tried to flee from her husband.

During the dramatic six-week trial, Murdaugh confessed to lying about his alibi on the night of the murders but continued to claim his innocence of the killings.

The jury didn’t agree and the disgraced legal scion was convicted in March of the brutal murders.