From, January 22, 2023, by Thad Moore  (Read full article here)

“I don’t want somebody who’s had their head in the sand. I wouldn’t want somebody who hasn’t heard about Murdaugh, because I want somebody who’s part of the world,” Savage said. “I don’t want the type of juror that would say they’d never heard of him, because that means they haven’t heard of anything else.”

The jurors who decide Alex Murdaugh’s fate on a pair of murder charges will have to answer big questions about the disbarred attorney in the coming weeks, including the biggest of all: Do they believe he killed his wife and son?

But starting Jan. 23, they will first face a battery of smaller questions about themselves, aimed at determining whether they’re already convinced of the answers.

Finding 12 impartial jurors is expected to be a lengthy process. To aid with the task, Judge Clifton Newman will have an extraordinarily large pool to draw from. Court officials sent summonses to 900 people, according to the clerk of court’s office. That’s more than 2 percent of the population of Colleton County, where the case is being tried.

To speed up the process, prospective jurors were asked to fill out a four-page questionnaire about their personal connections, work histories and past interactions with the courts. The questionnaire doesn’t name Murdaugh specifically, but it does ask where would-be jurors get their news and what true crime shows and podcasts they follow.

The June 2021 shooting deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh have been the subject of a chart-topping podcast, several TV documentaries and countless headlines around the world. (The questionnaire offers “Dateline” and “48 Hours” as examples of the true crime genre; both shows have released episodes about Murdaugh.)

In the courtroom, prospective jurors are likely to be questioned about the Murdaugh case specifically. In South Carolina, judges generally ask the questions in a process known as voir dire, unlike some states where lawyers interview candidates directly, said Kenneth Gaines, emeritus professor at University of South Carolina School of Law.

It’s not clear whether the state and Murdaugh have given Newman questions to ask. Proposed questions have not been filed publicly; Murdaugh defense attorney Dick Harpootlian and the state Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

What’s more, they will have to find jurors without past entanglements with the Murdaughs, which could be difficult in a rural county where the family has a long history and a sprawling web of potential conflicts. Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather held office as the 14th Judicial Circuit’s top prosecutor for eight decades, and the family law firm was a dominant force in the local legal trade, fielding countless personal injury cases.

The challenge of seating a jury in such a crowded media landscape was highlighted by the federal trial of Russell Laffitte, the former Hampton bank executive accused of helping Murdaugh steal money from clients. Though journalists weren’t allowed in the courtroom for jury selection, The Post and Courier later reviewed a transcript of the proceedings.

It showed that out of 68 prospective jurors who reported to Charleston’s federal courthouse, 28 stood when they were asked if they were familiar with the case — enough that U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel asked them to queue up for more detailed questioning.

Their responses showed varying levels of exposure to the case. At one extreme, juror No. 23 said they’d watched several documentaries and followed podcasts like the Murdaugh Murders Podcast, as had juror No. 172. Both of them were dismissed; one was removed from consideration after Laffitte defense attorney Bart Daniel objected to their inclusion, saying “the podcast scares the heck out of us” because he believed it conveyed “strong opinions of guilt.”

Others’ knowledge was more limited. Juror No. 205 saw headlines about Murdaugh, but didn’t read the articles because they were behind an online paywall. Juror No. 81 watched the end of a documentary because their mother and sister had it on when they got home. Juror No. 5 had heard about the case on the national news, but was too busy with work to keep up with it. (Jurors 5 and 205 were ultimately selected.)

Laffitte’s jury selection was also aided by the fact that he wasn’t the central player in the Murdaugh saga. Many prospective jurors said they had only heard Murdaugh’s name, not Laffitte’s. One said they weren’t aware of “the bank situation” that brought Laffitte into the mix. (Among other alleged crimes, Murdaugh is accused of diverting clients’ settlement funds to cover his debts; Laffitte was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy because he processed several of the transactions.)

That issue can’t be sidestepped in Murdaugh’s case. But that might be OK, said Andy Savage, a Charleston attorney with a long track record of defending the accused in high-profile cases.

It’s inevitable that the jury pool will be familiar with the case, Savage said; the question Judge Newman, the prosecution and the defense will try to get at is whether they can put those notions aside. And as a defense attorney, Savage said he’d want jurors who are sophisticated, independent thinkers — strong enough to resist getting swept up in other jurors’ opinions.

Plus, he said, heavy media coverage can be a double-edged sword for prosecutors. If jurors come in believing there will be overwhelming evidence, they may find themselves disappointed and let doubt creep in, Savage said.

“I don’t want somebody who’s had their head in the sand. I wouldn’t want somebody who hasn’t heard about Murdaugh, because I want somebody who’s part of the world,” Savage said. “I don’t want the type of juror that would say they’d never heard of him, because that means they haven’t heard of anything else.”

The Murdaugh jury will also have a uniquely challenging task compared to South Carolina’s other recent high-profile cases. They will be asked to sift through facts that are in hot dispute, not just to render a decision about whether the core facts constitute a crime. Murdaugh has adamantly denied shooting his wife, Maggie, and son Paul, and the state’s case appears to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.

Compare that to other recent cases: Laffitte admitted to making transactions for Murdaugh; his jury was tasked with deciding if he was as unwitting in the scheme as he claimed he was. North Charleston officer Michael Slager was captured on video shooting Walter Scott; his jury was asked to decide if he was acting in self-defense. The Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof confessed to killing nine parishioners; his jury was responsible for formally convicting him and deciding whether he should be put to death.

At Murdaugh’s trial, they’ll be asked to sort out the facts, not just the law.

The 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Eck is also a defendant in a civil suit filed by the alleged victim that is pending in federal court. The mistrial in June stemmed from Cannarella’s mention of that civil suit while cross-examining the alleged victim.

The state objected to the defense attorney’s use of the pending civil suit to impeach the witness, arguing it was irrelevant and prejudiced the jury, according to Cannarella.

Cannarella called his decision to cite the civil suit at trial “a common impeachment mechanism.”

“That is evidence of potentially a motive to misrepresent because a good outcome in the criminal case furthers his civil lawsuit,” the defense attorney said.

The magistrate presiding over the June trial agreed with the state and declared a mistrial. But another magistrate presiding over the re-trial found that his colleague legally erred by granting the mistrial, Cannarella said. The second magistrate then dismissed the case against Eck.

Eck is shielded from further prosecution due to the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause, which prevents a defendant from being prosecuted twice for the same crime.