Lady Justice and Judge Newman
Updated: Mar 12
The jury has spoken. While I thought there was more than ample evidence to support a guilty verdict, I thought we were headed for hung jury.
Judge Newman and the jury reaffirmed my faith in the South Carolina judicial system. As a law school classmate of Alex Murdaugh, I have been quite troubled about this trial. I discussed my initial thoughts here in my previous post the day before the case went to the jury.
Now that the jury has returned a verdict, and Judge Newman has sentenced Alex, I do have some additional observations about the Judge, the guilty verdicts, the jury, the sentencing, and the likely prospect of an appeal.
In the last few days of the trial, Judge Newman continued to be exceptional. His judicial temperament was revealed in particular in two instances, the dismissal of the "egg carrying" juror and his comments at sentencing.
The murders occurred on the Murdaugh's hunting property, a sprawling 1,700 plus acre hunting property known as “Moselle” comprising of six tracts in Hampton and Colleton counties. While Hampton County was the Murdaugh's generational home county and where his law firm was located, the trial occurred in Colleton County.
The Colleton County clerk of court initially summonsed more than 300 people to court for jury duty. The clerk knew it would be difficult even in Colleton County to find enough jurors who did not know the Murdaughs or have a predisposed opinion about the family or the murders. Of that group, the court selected 12 jurors and 6 alternate jurors. The original jury included four men and eight women. Ten jurors were white, and two were African American.
In the fourth week of the trial, two jurors were lost to covid. The Judge replaced them with alternates. When the attorneys raised the prospect of taking a couple days break in the trial, Judge Newman declined to do so, but saw to it that all the jurors were tested. Then, two other jurors were lost due to medical reasons by the sixth week of trial. The case was getting dangerously close to running out of alternates.
At every break, the Judge reminded the jurors not to speak about the case to anyone. I am sure keeping silent was not easy.
Several days before the end of the case, the Judge received a report that one of the jurors violated his order and had spoken to others about the trial.
After an in-chambers hearing, Judge Newman dismissed the juror. He delivered his decision in court to her in person, but not in the presence of the other jurors. He did so kindly and graciously. He did not admonish or criticize her.
"You have been by all accounts a great juror, and smiled consistently and seemingly been attentive to the case and performed well . . . I certainly want to thank you for your service. I'm not suggesting that you intentionally did anything wrong . . . , " he stated.
I have seen judges dismiss jurors, but not as gracefully as Judge Newman did. In fact, I have seen judges dismiss jurors with more harsh words about violating the judge's orders and the sanctity of the jury.
When the Judge asked her if she had any belongings that needed to be retrieved, she responded "a dozen eggs" that she brought in to share with the rest of the jury.
After she left, Judge Newman softly stated: "You get a lot of interesting things, but now a dozen eggs." In a rare moment of levity, the courtroom erupted in laughter.
As far as the jury, one of the jurors stated that as soon as they started to deliberate, 9 were prepared to vote guilty, one was undecided and two were in the "not guilty" camp. After a group discussion for about an hour, all twelve were ready to vote guilty.
All law school students should see Judge Newman's sentencing of Murdaugh.
He started by acknowledging that the case "has been one of the most troubling cases not just for me as a judge, the State, the defense team, but for all the citizens of the community, all the citizens in this state." As I mentioned, I felt the same way as a lawyer and a South Carolinian.
He spoke to Alex who was standing in handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit in front of him. He seemed astonished that Murdaugh continued to lie in the courtroom. When Murdaugh stated "When I lied, I continued to lie," the Judge stated "And the question is when will it end? When will it end? It's ended for the jury." He continued "and it might not have been you. It might have been the monster you've become" as a result of taking the opioid pills.
I have witnessed a number of sentencings. In cases as heinous as this, many times the judge scolds the defendant, and the sentencing is over quickly. For almost 20 minutes, Judge Newman methodically spoke to Murdaugh. He stated the case was "especially heartbreaking for me to see you go in the media from being a grieving father to being the person indicted and convicted for killing them."
The most chilling comment by the Judge was: "I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night when you are attempting to go to sleep. I am sure they come and visit you . . . and they will continue to do so and reflect on the last time you looked them in the eye as you looked the jury in the eye."
The Judge's sentencing sounded like an incredibly disappointed father figure. Compassionate, yet direct. Highly impactful, yet soft spoken.
As far as the evidence, many told me that there is no way a father could kill his wife and his son in such a gruesome fashion. Spouses have been murdering each other for centuries. But murder both your spouse and your child? I agree that is hard to fathom.
The testimony of Mark Tinsley, the lawyer for Mallory Beach's family, was impactful. Mallory is the beautiful young lady killed in the boating accident in which the lawsuit claims an intoxicated Paul Murdaugh was driving the boat. Tinsley had sued Alex personally. While some minimized that as a case of "negligent parenting" with little likelihood of success, novel theories of law have resulted in defendants getting popped with multi-million dollar verdicts in Hampton County for years.
Tinsley testified that Alex saw him at the annual Trial Lawyers Convention in Hilton Head in August of 2018. That meeting is well-attended by the state's plaintiffs' lawyers. Tinsley stated: "Elec (sic) sees me, and he comes across and gets up close in my face and says: 'Hey Bo, what's this I'm hearing about what you are saying? I thought we were friends.'" Although Alex denied saying that, having gone to law school with Alex, that's exactly how Alex speaks --especially the "Hey Bo" intro.
In a post-trial interview when media asked Tinsley what he thought about Alex proclaiming his innocence to Judge Newman at the sentencing, Tinsley stated; "That's a sociopath. Go watch what Ted Bundy did when they sentenced him. He said 'It's absurd that you're sentencing me. I'm innocent.' There's a lot of similarities."
Tinsley said the Beach case was set for trial August 14th. He said Mallory's parents had been there for the sentencing. "They found comfort in the fact that good has come out of Mallory's death . . . That's why they were here this morning to show their respect for Maggie and Paul and stand up for what's right."
While it is hard to fathom what Alex did, it was harder to come up with any other plausible explanation. I think the State did a great job of making that point. To accept the defense theory, you would have to believe that 2 vigilantes showed up on the property at the kennels, knowing that Maggie and Paul were there, knowing that Alex was not, that the dogs did not bark at the presence of strangers, the vigilantes found 2 family weapons, shot Maggie and Paul without Alex hearing multiple shotgun and rifle gunshots in the house, and they left the property about the same time he did with no one noticing. That just defies logic.
There was much posttrial talk about an appeal. The defense team has already filed its notice of appeal. While I think Murdaugh had two of the state's best criminal defense attorneys, I put little faith in the success of an appellate court taking the case away from the jury and finding reversible error by the trial court. Appellate courts are typically reluctant to do so absent prejudicial error.
Lawyers deal with the facts and clients they have. It's like a hand of cards. This was a bad client with bad facts. Dealt with that hand, the defense team did an admirable job.
Many say justice won as did Maggie and Paul. The night of the verdict, the remnants of Murdaugh's defunct law firm - pretty much the same firm with a new name and the same attorneys except Alex - posted on their website: "The actions of Alex Murdaugh are shocking to us all. Tonight’s verdict, which was rendered after a thorough and fair trial, brings justice and some closure to this awful matter. Maggie and Paul died tragically and for reasons we may never fully comprehend. They were much beloved, and we will forever mourn their loss."
"Lady Justice is based on the Greek goddess Themis -- honored as clear-sighted -- and the Roman goddess Justicia -- honored as representing the virtue of justice. She is blindfolded because justice is unbiased and should not be based on a person's appearance or other outside influences. Lady Justice holds scales to represent the impartiality of the court's decisions and a sword as the symbol of the power of justice." (quoted from Missouri Court website).
Blind, unbiased, clear-sighted, and powerful, Lady Justice prevailed.
Alex is now the second member of my law school class of 1994 serving a long sentence who will likely die in jail. I hope there are no more.
In my next post, I will wrap up this discussion about what I learned from Judge Newman and tell a story about my defending the railroad back in 1998 in Hampton County in a case brought by the Murdaugh firm. It involved a case against CSX and a judge --not like Judge Newman.
Until then, you might also enjoy my post on a death penalty appeal presided over by another great judge, Judge David Norton. I worked for him as a federal judicial law clerk in my first job out of law school. It's a quick four-minute read. You can find it here.