Updated: Mar 16
Alex Murdaugh was a law school classmate of mine. Class of 1994 at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Like many, I have been captivated by the Murdaugh double murder trial. It is incredibly hard to wrap my head around the facts of the case especially because I know many of the characters.
Alex and one of his alleged financial crimes accomplices and fellow attorney Cory Fleming were my classmates. Cory is seen and heard with Alex in the videotaped law enforcement interview when they informed Alex that he is a suspect.
As a third-year law student, I was a teaching assistant for the lead prosecutor, Creighton Waters, who would graduate from USC School of Law in 1996 two years after I did. I know the SC Attorney General Alan Wilson. Everyone in the SC Bar who follows SC politics knows defense attorney and democratic state Senator Dick Hartpoolian.
As a litigator, years ago I handled many cases in Hampton County brought by Murdaugh's law firm. Hampton County was indeed a judicial hellhole where you knew you would lose every case and pay 5 to 10 times what the case was likely worth - if you were lucky.
I have plenty of stories about my cases in Hampton County against Alex, and his former law firm partners some of whom have testified and all from whom he stole - Johnnie Parker, Ronnie Crosby, and Mark Ball. Perhaps those stories are for a later date.
I guess as shameful and horrific as the case is, the best thing about the case is the presiding judge, Judge Clifton Newman. He is the subject of this post.
I wanted to relate a few of my observations about Judge Newman. In many respects, his judicial temperament and courtroom demeanor remind me of the good judges in our state, including the one I clerked for years ago.
Here are some of my observations:
No doubt about it, the Judge is in charge of the courtroom. He keeps the lawyers in line and gently admonishes the observers when they have outbursts or have gotten too loud. He does so without raising his voice or banging a gavel.
He is punctual. He starts on time, takes short breaks, and finishes at a reasonable hour.
He is well aware of the national visibility of this case and that it is on live TV, but not once has he appeared to play to the TV audience unlike some judges in other cases with national news coverage.
After hours and hours of testimony, some of which has been overly repetitive, he has given the attorneys all the time they need. He truly has the "patience of Job" as my mother would say.
His rulings have been fair. Like a good umpire, he's calling the shots right down the middle. He gives both sides ample opportunity to state their position. He does not appear to favor either side, especially in his evidentiary rulings.
He is cordial and respectful to the jury, the courtroom staff, the witnesses, and the lawyers.
His rulings are based on the law and appear to be well-reasoned. He's not in any rush to make a hasty decision.
This is not Judge Newman's first tough case. He was handpicked to preside over this case. In 2016 he also presided over the five-week state court trial in which ex-police officer Michael Slager was charged in the racially charged shooting death of Walter Scott. While that case ended in a hung jury with 11 of the 12 jurors favoring a conviction, Slager later pled guilty to federal civil rights charges before Judge Norton who gave him a 20 year sentence. (Judge Norton is the judge I clerked for about whom this "What I Learned from the Judge" series originates! It's a small state.)
Judge Newman was also the presiding judge for the murder trial of Nathanial Rowland who in 2019 killed a young University of South Carolina student who accidentally got in his car thinking it was her Uber ride. Rowland had the back seat child locks on so the victim could not get out of his car. As a result of that horrific murder, Uber changed its notices to prospective passengers telling us all to check the car, confirm the driver, and verify the tags before we get in the car.
On a personal note, Judge Newman knows very well the pain of losing a child. His son passed away unexpectedly in January of this year. A lawyer like his father, Brian Newman had been a state prosecutor and was the youngest person ever to be elected to the Columbia, SC, City Council. His son was 40 years old when he died from an unexpected cardiac event.
His daughter Jocelyn Newman is also a South Carolina state court judge, like her father.
The financial crimes and shocking breach of trust of Alex Murdaugh surely are a black eye on the South Carolina Bar. As a lawyer who has handled and settled multi-million-dollar personal injury cases, the manner in which Alex blatantly stole from needy clients who trusted him is egregious, shameful, and embarrassing to all of us in the legal profession.
We'll see what the jury thinks about the murder charges.
The murders committed by Michael Slager and Nathaniel Rowland further demonstrate the worst that our state has to offer.
Elected to the bench by our state legislature in 2000, Judge Newman is serving his fourth and final term as a state court judge.
Judge Clifton Newman represents the best our state has to offer.
My next post talks about the jury's verdict, Judge Newman's sentencing, and the prospects of an appeal!