Can Alex Murdaugh get an impartial jury? Experts weigh in

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(NewsNation) — The murder trial of disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh begins Monday, and the heavy amount of media coverage is giving rise to an important question: Will the court have difficulty in seating an impartial jury?

Susan Constantine knows this problem well.

She’s a jury consultant, as well as a trial strategy and human behavior expert. She’s consulted on some of the highest profile cases of our time, including those of Jeffrey Epstein and Michael Jackson.

When Constantine gets hired, she first weighs demographics.

“We know that there are specific type of jurors that tend to be egalitarian versus authoritarian based on their job, background, etc. and then you go into (factors) that are different in each case,” Constantine said.

NewsNation’s Special Report: The Murdaugh Mysteries hosted by Marni Hughes will break down everything we know about the case, including details of several mysterious deaths and allegations of financial and drug crimes. The special report will air on Jan. 22 at 8/9 ET. Here is how to watch.

In the case of Murdaugh, the family was well known in the South Carolina Lowcountry for decades. Multiple generations of Murdaughs served in the local prosecutor’s office, and the family had a well-established law firm.

According to court documents, Murdaugh’s wife Maggie was shot multiple times with a high-powered rifle, including in the back of the head while she was lying facedown on the ground. Their 22-year-old son Paul was killed with a shotgun, struck in the head and chest.

Prosecutors alleged in court filings that Murdaugh killed Maggie and Paul because of the threat of “personal, legal and financial ruin.” The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office said Murdaugh sought to portray himself as a victim to distract from multiple investigations into a decade of financial crimes.

Alex Murdaugh has been arrested several times since his wife and son were found dead on their Colleton County property. Since then, he has been accused of plotting a botched assisted suicide attempt and stealing insurance money from previous legal clients.

David Cannon, a jury consultant and co-founder of Trial Innovations, said if he were the prosecution, he would be worried about jurors who are going to be motivated by anything other than justice.

“If someone knows him, if someone holds him in high regard, that is the riskiest factor because that could be someone that we refer to as a stealth juror who wants to get on and wants to render a verdict in favor of the defendant,” Cannon said.

Conversely, Cannon said the defense team would want a juror who they believe will buy into their “themes and theories” of the case.

“That is someone into more conspiracy theories,” Cannon said, “because I don’t know what the defense is going to offer up, but it might be that this could be some kind of untoward connection, or this could be someone who had some kind of vendetta against him because of all of his legal work.”

Cannon suggested the defense might also try to seat a juror who would advocate for Murdaugh and potentially hang the jury.

When prosecutors or defense attorneys seek a clean jury pool, they may also pursue a venue change. But it’s not a catchall, particularly in today’s digital age when information is easily and readily accessible online.

Constantine noted that in the case of Casey Anthony, whose trial was held in Orlando, in Florida’s Orange County, jurors were selected from Tampa’s Pinellas County, hundreds of miles away.

Knowledge of cases can reach globally, too. Constantine said she was recently in London, where she overheard people in a grocery store talking about the Moscow, Idaho, quadruple homicides.

“There’s nowhere you can hide, nowhere you can go, everyone’s heard of it no matter where they’re at it,” Constantine said. “We’re a global universe, the World Wide Web makes you feel like you know the people next door.”

Murdaugh’s trial is taking place in Colleton County, where the shootings occurred. That county is in South Carolina’s 14th Judicial Circuit, which also comprises Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Allendale counties. State law stipulates that in the event of a venue change, the new location must be a different county within the same circuit.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense have filed motions requesting a venue change.

“When they consider a change of venue, they actually conduct research … and they get a feel of what would it be like if if we do this trial in this county, what are our chances of prevailing, and they compare that to other counties in South Carolina … I would be shocked if that had not been done,” Cannon said. “It seems that the defense strategy is they want to have this trial in this county.”

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