WALTERBORO — It can be hard to make pre-trial hearings dramatic, but lawyers for Alex Murdaugh and the state Attorney General’s Office were succeeding. Arms waved. Fingers pointed. Voices flared. A pen got thrown.
Murdaugh, a once-powerful lawyer accused of killing his wife and son and committing a stunning labyrinth of financial crimes, glowered at the defense table. Beneath it, his knees jiggled.
But on the bench, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman listened to the Aug. 29 hearing without a speck of expression. He leaned over to retrieve a bottle of water, setting it before him with deliberate nonchalance as arguments heated up in a saga replete with wealth, power, family and deceit.
Although the judge said virtually nothing as the attorneys sparred for 40 minutes, he was easily the most powerful person in the courtroom. Last fall, the state’s Supreme Court chief justice appointed him to handle the sprawling web of criminal matters involving 54-year-old Murdaugh, although he hasn’t said if Newman will preside over the double-murder trial, a spectacle of indescribable national interest.
Since that appointment, Newman has had the power to determine what bail Murdaugh will have to post to get out of jail, whether to gag attorneys in the case — and whether to sanction lawyers for failing to abide by discovery rules.
Murdaugh’s lawyer Dick Harpootlian leaped up from the defense table and cut his eyes toward the prosecutor, accusing the attorney general's team of failing to turn over evidence.
“Every time we turn around, they’re trying to hide something!”
Creighton Waters, the state grand jury prosecutor, in turn blamed Harpootlian for at first agreeing to a protective order restricting pre-trial evidence from public view, then backing out at the 11th hour.
“He knows I don’t play fast and loose with discovery.”
In soft tones, Judge Newman briefly interrupted. The jurist, who once attended segregated schools in rural South Carolina, admonished the two prominent White lawyers flanked by more White lawyers:
“Address the court.”
Both lawyers snapped their attention back to the 70-year-old Black man up front.
“Yes, your honor.”
To understand that soft voice, the careful utterances, go back to the Clifton Newman of a very different time.
He grew up in rural Williamsburg County, about 79 miles northwest of Charleston, the first person in his family born in a hospital. His mother left tiny Greeleyville to take a job as a domestic worker with a Columbia University professor's family in New York. Newman, raised by his aunt and grandparents, was only 3 years old when she departed, although he still spent summers with her.
A good student, he worked in his high school principal’s office. And that principal was a stickler for grammar in an area where people spoke, as Newman put it, “country talk.” Like most, he came from a family of farmers.
The principal corrected his speech at every turn, until Newman developed the habit of thinking carefully before he spoke. That habit has reared its head time and time again in the Murdaugh saga, as Newman sat patiently through contentious hearings before issuing his rulings in a measured voice.
In high school, that same principal also tapped Newman to play a key role in a school play.
Newman portrayed a New York City lawyer for the NAACP who came south to represent people fighting school segregation. The play was based on Briggs v. Elliott, a case out of neighboring Clarendon County that became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
The role required wearing a suit. So, Newman’s grandfather took him to a local department store and bought him one, a black suit with a yellow shirt.
“He saw it as being important enough to get it for me,” Newman recalled, “and it felt extra special wearing it.” So did representing people who had sought fairness from the courts.
In real life, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racially segregated schools unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown case, South Carolina delayed and dodged for years. Most districts, including the one where Newman lived, didn’t desegregate until 1970.
But Newman graduated as his class valedictorian in 1969. He set out for Cleveland State University in Ohio having never attended school with a White student.
He could have become a minister, one of the few paths to financial success for African Americans back then. After all, his father’s brother was the Rev. Isaiah DeQuincey Newman, a Methodist minister and one of the state’s most prominent civil rights activists. As a child, DeQuincey had witnessed the KKK burn alive a Black prisoner in a wooden railcar — and then watched his father’s powerlessness to stop it.
DeQuincey became an NAACP leader and later was the first African American elected to the state Senate since Reconstruction.
A young Clifton Newman was watching.
Newman got involved with campus politics and Black student life. He also met a future attorney who was always challenging things on campus.
“Why don’t you go to law school?” the man asked.
Newman remembered that black suit with the yellow shirt.
After graduating from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, he bought a house in Cleveland, opened his first practice, and married his wife, Patricia. They started a family.
Several years later, they faced a dilemma. A federal court was forcing integration by busing children from his neighborhood, “and I didn’t want our children bused across town,” Newman said. He felt they were pawns. Yet, he also worried about raising them in what he called the "inner city."
In 1982, the couple moved to South Carolina. He opened a law practice that handled mostly civil cases, particularly complex business litigation. With offices in Columbia and the small town of Kingstree in Williamsburg County, he could keep one foot in the state capital and one near his hometown. Newman also became a part-time prosecutor in the county.
Time passed. Their kids grew. His practice flourished. He took on leadership roles.
After 24 years of saying, “your honor” and “may it please the court,” he began to envision himself sitting up there in that black robe.
“I’d rather be the one making the decisions,” he said.
In 2000, the General Assembly elected him to an at-large seat. Just 18 years had passed since Ernest A. Finney, Jr. became the first Black circuit judge in the state. Just six years had passed since Finney became the state Supreme Court’s first Black chief justice since Reconstruction.
Not many judges looked like Newman. They still don’t. Of South Carolina's 48 Circuit Court judges, eight are Black, according to court administration numbers.
When Newman showed up in some counties, people hadn’t seen a Black judge in a decade. One solicitor told him that in 20 years, only three Black judges had ever appeared in the circuit.
Fifteen years after Newman’s election, the world watched cellphone video of a White North Charleston police officer shooting and killing a Black man running away from him. Newman was assigned to the 2016 trial of Michael Slager, the former cop charged with gunning down Walter Scott.
The racially charged state proceedings overlapped with the federal hate crimes trial of Dylann Roof right across the street. Roof was sentenced to death for killing nine Black worshippers inside Emanuel AME Church. Journalists from across the nation descended on Charleston to cover the two trials.
During Slager’s trial, which was livestreamed, people analyzed Newman’s every move and parsed his every word. It was the first time he needed a protective SLED detail around the clock.
But after 17 years as a prosecutor, and nearly as long on the bench, he was not known as a pushover.
Andy Savage, who was Slager’s defense attorney, said Newman is tough on defendants. Savage warned Dick Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s lead attorney, not to expect “a warm-and-fuzzy reception."
“Dick is going to have to wear a parka in the courtroom,” Savage said. “I think he will find a very frigid environment.”
For instance, even though prosecutors didn't initially ask Newman to deny Murdaugh bail, he jailed the disgraced attorney anyway. In fact, Newman twice denied Murdaugh bail before another judge set it at $7 million.
Newman likewise agreed to prosecutors' requests for high bond amounts for Murdaugh's co-defendants and even exceeded their requests at times. This summer, he set a $200,000 bond for Spencer Roberts, a defendant connected with the Murdaugh case, over the objections of his defense attorney. And he threw another co-defendant, Curtis Smith, in jail at Waters' request for violating terms of his house arrest, even though Smith insisted he left home for his work as a trucker.
Yet, in other cases, Newman has received the opposite criticism. His decision to grant Slager a $500,000 bail, followed by the former officer’s release on house detention, prompted protests by Black activists.
Looking back on the Slager case, which ended with a hung jury, Newman said his biggest challenge was grappling with the racial issues “which I certainly attempted to keep out of it as best I could but inevitably crept into the case.”
He noted that although 35 percent of Charleston County’s eligible jurors are Black, all but one in Slager’s trial were White. Newman appointed the lone Black juror to be foreman.
It underscores a need for Black representation throughout South Carolina’s courtrooms.
Look no farther than the seat next to him on the bench. It’s usually filled by a Black law clerk, as Newman helps to build a pipeline of African American lawyers and judges.
His first law clerk was Pandora Jones-Glover, who spent 19 months working at his side.
“He was always fair,” she said. “Some rulings came easier than others, but he took great care in making all of them.”
He became a mentor and friend as she prosecuted cases in Orangeburg County and then was appointed probate judge. He preached that success comes from hard work.
It’s a lesson he and Patricia instilled in their four children, who include a mathematician, an engineer, a lawyer — and a fellow circuit judge. Their 44-year-old daughter, Jocelyn Newman, was elected to the bench in 2016.
He swore her in, which he called “one of the proudest moments.”
Jocelyn Newman recalled the summers off from school when she sat in the jury box watching him handle cases. The man who appeared in court was the same persona who accompanied her home.
“The public gets a pretty good view of who he is,” she said. “The calm, laid-back demeanor, that’s who he is.”
A courtroom is a sterile world of dark wood, chandeliers and stuffy formalities. Yet, it hosts recountings of the most gut-wrenching moments in people’s lives.
Death penalty trials stand alone in their awfulness.
The first capital murder case Newman presided over was the 2006 trial of Mikal Deen Mahdi. In South Carolina, a unanimous jury must agree to a death sentence, which a judge then imposes.
But Mahdi pleaded guilty. Newman alone had to decide his sentence.
“It was very, very difficult for me because, at the time, I did not really believe in the death penalty,” Newman said. “But the case became much bigger than my personal beliefs, and the law demanded the result I imposed.”
Even Newman’s family expected him to choose a life sentence — until he heard the case.
Mahdi had killed a gas station attendant, stolen a car, fatally shot an Orangeburg police officer nine times, burned his body, fled in the man’s unmarked police truck, then led police on a three-day manhunt that ended in Florida.
Newman sentenced Mahdi to death.
“He kind of surprised himself,” Newman’s daughter recalled, “and it took a toll on him.”
He has since handled other death penalty cases and firmed up his view that the punishment is sometimes required. The next such trial on his plate might be that of Alex Murdaugh. The attorney general hasn’t yet announced if he will pursue the death penalty.
The pretty white Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, where Murdaugh’s murder trial likely will be held, sits 100 miles southeast of Columbia, the state capital where Newman lives.
The judge enjoys physical distance from the web of scandals surrounding Murdaugh. He also moves in different legal circles than many of the lawyers entangled in them.
This has proven critical.
Finding a judge without conflicts isn’t easy, given the breadth of charges Murdaugh and his alleged accomplices face — but also his family’s long tenure of judicial influence. Four generations of Murdaughs served as solicitors of the 14th Circuit, which spans the southern tip of South Carolina. Murdaugh also was a partner in the family’s powerful law firm.
Two local Circuit Court judges and the solicitor already have recused themselves from cases involving Murdaugh's son. In 2019, then 19-year-old Paul Murdaugh was intoxicated while allegedly driving his father’s boat when it crashed. A passenger, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, was killed. Paul soon faced criminal charges and a civil lawsuit in the crash.
Then, this past summer, another tragedy hit. Paul and his 52-year-old mother, Maggie, were found shot to death at the family’s Hampton hunting estate. In July, a grand jury indicted Alex Murdaugh in the double murder. The local solicitor recused himself from those cases, as well.
By then, state Chief Justice Donald Beatty had already appointed Newman to preside over all criminal matters related to Murdaugh. That includes pending or future investigations into the death of the Murdaughs' longtime housekeeper and Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old found dead in 2015 on a rural Hampton road.
Throw in the insatiable public appetite for the tsunami of litigation surrounding Murdaugh — the state alone has so far brought 18 indictments containing 90 charges against him — and it all promises to keep one judge busy for a long, long time.
The big question now is whether Beatty will assign Newman to handle the double-murder trial, likely held in January.
In a court filing, Murdaugh’s attorneys questioned whether Newman should handle the trial given that he has presided over the pre-trial matters and "would likely be placed in the position of ruling on the validity of search warrants he issued."
But Bakari Sellers, a Columbia attorney who knows the judge's family well, predicts a 100 percent likelihood that Newman will preside over the murder trial.
Sellers called Newman “a jurist beyond reproach” who can ensure a fair trial despite the ambitions of defense attorney Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator and former party chairman, and the office of Alan Wilson, the Republican attorney general.
“Judge Newman will make sure Alex Murdaugh gets a fair trial and that jurors are able to render a verdict in this matter,” Sellers said. “He won’t get caught up in the showmanship that is Dick Harpootlian or the politics that is Alan Wilson.”
Indeed, at the close of the contentious Aug. 29 pre-trial hearing, Newman granted the prosecutor's request for a protective order covering evidence. He emphasized that he would not permit a “carnival-type atmosphere,” no matter the public mania over Murdaugh’s trial.
Avery Wilks contributed to this report.