Murdaugh judge praised for handling of murder trial

The judge in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial has passed his sentence
Published: Mar. 4, 2023 at 1:54 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 4, 2023 at 2:40 PM EST
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - If there’s one thing most people in the Lowcountry seemed to agree on this week, it was the judge who presided over the Alex Murdaugh murder trial.

Viewers gave a resounding “A” grade to Judge Clifton Newman Friday afternoon after he sentenced Murdaugh to two consecutive life sentences for the June 7, 2021, murders of his wife, Margaret; and their youngest son, Paul.

“He did such a good job. So calm and professional. We need more judges like him,” one commenter said.

“He was a wonderful judge. He didn’t let his emotions come to the surface,” another said. “He was fair and very professional. A+.”

“I did not watch the whole trial but what I did see, I was tremendously impressed by his professionalism, calm, knowledge, control and humility over the proceedings. Made me proud to share my state of SC with the man,” another said.

Not everyone, of course were as quick to heap praise on Newman. While not directly criticizing him, Murdaugh’s attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, said Friday they plan to appeal the guilty verdict.

They said they believed Newman may have been misled by the state when he allowed all of the testimony on Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes into the trial.

“Look, they won this case the day the judge bought into letting them put every piece of, you know, stealing from kids who lost their mother, from somebody with pancreatic cancer, somebody that’s a paraplegic,” Harpootlian said. “I mean, all of that two and a half weeks, by the time they got done with it, it didn’t matter about final argument. It didn’t matter about what we put up. He was, they would never ever, ever acquit him after that.”

While Murdaugh himself always wanted to take the stand, Harpootlian said there was no choice but to do so after all of the testimony about the nearly 100 financial crime charges.

“But once that information was in, I mean, if he had to take the stand to explain the kennel video, the lie, if you will, all of his credibility had been stripped away by the financial misdeeds,” he said.

SPECIAL SECTION: The Murdaugh Cases

Newman gave Murdaugh the chance to speak before the sentencing.

“As I tell you again, I respect this court. But I am innocent. I would never under any circumstances hurt my wife Maggie and I would never under any circumstances hurt my son Paul-Paul,” Murdaugh said.

“And it might not have been you. It might have been the monster you become,” when taking large amounts of opiates, Newman said, noting Murdaugh’s painkilled addiction.

Defending son Buster Murdaugh’s decision not to issue a victim’s statement ahead of sentencing, Griffin said even a statement from Mother Teresa wouldn’t have changed the outcome, given Newman’s reputation for delivering punishment.

“I mean, he was getting a double life sentence. That was expected. I mean, this is Judge Newman. He’s a very stringent punisher when it comes to crimes and sentences. I mean, that that was never in dispute.”

Newman’s own legal story unfolded in South Carolina

Newman earned not only statewide but national attention and plaudits for his even-handed demeanor throughout the trial and for his dressing-down of the once-prominent lawyer just before he sent him to prison.

A South Carolina native who attended racially segregated schools in the 1950s and 1960s, Newman addressed Murdaugh directly during roughly 20 minutes of comments that ranged from invoking the memories of the defendant’s slain son Paul and wife Maggie to lamenting what he described as attacks on the credibility of the state’s justice system during the trial. He noted that Murdaugh came from a prominent family of lawyers in the area and that a portrait of his grandfather, a former prosecutor, once hung in the courthouse where he was tried – until Newman had it removed to promote a fair trial.

Judge Clifton Newman announces two jurors in the Murdaugh trial have tested positive for...
Judge Clifton Newman announces two jurors in the Murdaugh trial have tested positive for COVID-19 and must be released from service.

Among the most poignant moments came when Newman spoke to Murdaugh about his wife and son. Referring to the shooting deaths and lies Murdaugh admitted telling throughout the investigation, the judge said: “Within your own soul, you have to deal with that. And I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night time when you’re attempting to go to sleep and I’m sure they come and visit you.”

“All day, and every night,” Murdaugh said, maintaining his innocence during the sentencing hearing.

“And they will continue to do so and reflect on the last time they looked you in the eyes,” the judge then replied.

The judge also remarked on how the case was an “assault on the integrity of the judicial system in our state,” referring to the prominent position that Murdaugh’s family held as longtime prosecutors in the area – along with the defense team’s efforts to impugn investigative methods throughout the trial.

“As a member of the legal community -- and a well-known member of the legal community -- you practiced law before me, and we’ve seen each other at various occasions throughout the years,” he said.

Newman’s 40-year-old son, Brian, died just weeks before the Murdaugh trial would pull Newman away from his home for more than a month. Brian Newman, a former Columbia city councilman, died of a cardiac issue, according to The State newspaper in Columbia.

On Friday, as the judge handed down Murdaugh’s sentence for killing his own son, he added a small extra touch.

“For the murder of Paul Murdaugh, whom you probably loved so much, I sentence you to prison for murdering him for the rest of your natural life,” Newman said.

Circuit court judge Clifton Newman explains disqualifying criteria to potential jurors as jury...
Circuit court judge Clifton Newman explains disqualifying criteria to potential jurors as jury selection continues in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, S.C., Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder in the deaths of his wife Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, 22. (Joshua Boucher/The State via AP, Pool)(Joshua Boucher | AP)

Newman was born in 1951 in Kingstree in South Carolina’s rural Williamsburg County and grew up there attending racially segregated schools.

Newman was the first person in his family to be born in a hospital. When he was 3 years old, his mother moved to New York to take a job as a domestic worker for a Columbia University professor’s family, leaving him in the care of grandparents and an aunt.

Newman graduated from high school as his class valedictorian in 1969, a year before his local school district desegregated. In high school, he played the role of a lawyer from New York City in a play based on a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation case, an experience that helped propel him into a career in the law.

“To come from a rural community, a farming community, and to go from that scenario to playing the role of a lawyer was quite inspiring,” Newman told the American Bar Association in 2017.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Cleveland State University and graduating from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Newman began practicing law in Cleveland. He returned to South Carolina in 1982 and started a private law practice.

Newman served as a defense attorney, a civil practitioner and a prosecutor before 2000, when the state General Assembly elected him to serve as a Circuit Court judge.

“I’ve run the gamut, as far as handling all aspects of the law,” Newman told the ABA.

Newman was assigned to the 2016 trial of Michael Slager, a white former police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, in the back after a traffic stop.

In 2021, the chief justice of South Carolina’s Supreme Court appointed Newman to handle the criminal matters involving Murdaugh.