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Judge won't issue gag order in Alex Murdaugh double-murder case

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Alex Murdaugh walks outside the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro on July 20, 2022. State Judge Clifton Newman has refused to issue a gag order ahead of the disbarred attorney's double-murder trial. Laura Bilson/Staff

State Judge Clifton Newman has refused to issue a gag order ahead of the double-murder trial of disbarred attorney Alex Murdaugh, saying he will not trample on public and press access to the high-profile case.

Newman’s Aug. 1 ruling denies a joint request made last month by state prosecutors and Murdaugh’s defense attorneys. The two sides agreed in open court they wanted to limit leaks and public statements about the case to avoid tainting a Colleton County jury that will decide whether Murdaugh is guilty of killing his wife and son in June 2021.

But in a three-page order, Newman declared they can do that just fine without a gag order. Murdaugh’s right to a fair trial doesn’t override the public’s constitutional right to know how his case is proceeding, Newman said.

“The public is entitled to know how justice is being administered,” Newman wrote.

Murdaugh’s lawyers declined to comment Aug. 2. Efforts to reach the S.C. Attorney General’s Office for comment were unsuccessful.

Newman said the legal profession's rules of professional conduct should be sufficient in limiting out-of-court statements before trial. Issuing a gag order, he said, “would likely constitute the improper closure of the courtroom.”

“The Defendant has the constitutional right to a trial before a fair and impartial jury,” Newman wrote. “This right, however, must be balanced against other important constitutional guarantees which this court must consider.”

Newman’s ruling comes less than two weeks after Murdaugh, 54, appeared before him in a Walterboro courtroom to plead not guilty to charges he fatally shot his wife and son on June 7, 2021.

The grisly slayings captured international attention and shone an intense spotlight on Murdaugh, the scion of a powerful and wealthy family of Hampton County lawyers and the only known person of interest in the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. His life quickly unraveled.

Thirteen months later, he faces a cascade of civil lawsuits and criminal charges alleging he spent a decade secretly stealing millions of dollars from settlements owed to his legal clients and others who trusted him.

After a state police investigation that lasted more than a year, a Colleton County grand jury indicted Murdaugh on July 14 on charges alleging he killed his wife with a rifle and son with a shotgun.

Authorities have released few other details about the slayings. They have not disclosed Murdaugh's purported motive, aside from saying the killings were linked to the disgraced attorney's other alleged criminality.

Murdaugh's attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin of Columbia, have asked for a speedy trial — as early as November — and demanded the Attorney General's Office turn over all of its evidence in the case within a month.

Newman has yet to rule on the speedy trial request.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to averywilks93@protonmail.com.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

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