Murdaugh judge’s own legal story unfolded in South Carolina
The judge who sentenced Alex Murdaugh on Friday to life in prison for killing his wife and son has earned 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.
Judge Clifton Newman, a South Carolina native who attended racially segregated schools in the 1950s and 1960s, 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.
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,” said Murdaugh, who maintained 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.
Newman was born in 1951 in South Carolina’s rural Williamsburg County and grew up there attending racially segregated schools, The Post and Courier reported in a profile of the judge last year.
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.