The judge who oversaw the Alex Murdaugh murder trial and sentenced the disgraced lawyer to two consecutive life prison sentences spoke publicly about the case before the cameras for the first time in a question-and-answer session during a panel at Cleveland State University, his alma mater, on Tuesday.
Judge Clifton Newman, who is a few months away from forced retirement under Palmetto State law, was interviewed by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Brendan J. Sheehan and asked to opine on various aspects of the trial including the terse deliberations.
“Nothing surprises me when it comes to court and cases, really,” Newman said. “You just never know. These are people. They’re strangers to me. Strangers to each other. You could be sitting – it could be 12 of you on that jury. You’re just listening and digesting it all.”
On March 2, 2023, after a trial taking up the better part of six weeks, Murdaugh’s peers found him guilty on all counts in the Colleton County Courthouse. The timestamp on that decision was 6:41 p.m. EST. Ultimately, jurors spent just shy of three hours deciding his fate.
“My experience is that when jurors have sat and listened to something for six weeks, over 800 exhibits presented, when they go back to deliberate, they don’t want to look at those 800 exhibits, they don’t want to spend their time combing through everything they have laboriously sat there and listened to for that length of time,” Newman explained to the judge asking the questions.
He mused that the three hours spent deliberating on the defendant’s guilt or innocence “was about normal” under the circumstances.
A lighter moment came when the questioner asked who would play the judge in a movie or miniseries about the nationally famous trial. Newman said Morgan Freeman was too old. The judge’s wife suggested Denzel Washington might be up to the task.
Sheehan also asked whether it was difficult to sentence a man who had previously practiced the law in front of him.
“Well, being from a small, rural community, and being from a relatively small state, I’ve had to handle cases where I knew the person who was accused, or knew the victims,” Newman said. “Judges have to make an individual determination as to whether they can be fair and impartial. But my test is not whether I know the person or knew of the person, it has to be whether my knowledge of them would affect my ability to be fair or impartial. We weren’t personal friends, but since he was from a popular firm and a popular lawyer, all judges, every judge in the state either knew him or knew of him.”
Newman went on to add that you always know the defendant by the end of a murder trial.
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Then there was the markedly quick turnaround for sentencing – a hearing which came the next morning in South Carolina; sped up even further by the prosecution declining to offer additional argument or victim impact statements for a harsher sentence; and the defense, similarly, opting out of offering any mitigation evidence.
“So, here we are, and he’s standing before me to be sentenced for having been convicted of a double murder, and basically he told me he had nothing to say, either, other than ‘It wasn’t me.’”
Sheehan then brought up the lengthy speech that Newman gave to the defendant before sending him off to prison for the rest of his life, castigating him for the vicious crime, and suggesting that the convicted murderer would remain haunted by the slayings.
“Within your own soul you have to deal with that,” the judge said at the time. “I know 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.”
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That speech, Newman said, was not planned or pre-scripted. It came from his preparation throughout the case.
“The person who kills another person, I’m told the person who is killed will haunt, will come back, and they’ll never be able to get over the moment in time they took that person’s life,” the Lowcountry judge said. “Whether that’s a spiritual belief or just my view of the word. It is also the subject of a barbershop conversation one day: when a customer was arguing to the barber, saying that if you kill a man, he will haunt you, he will come back, and you will never be able to get that person out of your mind.”
He then offered a sad take on the killer’s personal experience with, and relationship to, his familial victims.
“In my mind, no doubt, he loved his family,” Newman said. “I don’t believe that he hated his wife. And, certainly I did not believe that he did not love his son. But he committed an unforgivable, unimaginable crime. And there’s no way that he’ll be able to sleep peacefully given those facts.”
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