“The four SLED agents, dressed in coats and ties, sat silently in a front row of courtroom seats for The the entire hearing.”
This is how reporter John Monk of State Media Co. described it. South Carolina Department of Law Enforcement agents inside a Colleton County courtroom Monday.
Attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, the defense team for Alex Murdaugh on two counts of murder, wanted the agents to take the witness stand and testify about the information leaked to reporters.
Judge Clifton Newman denied a request to put the agents on the witness stand.
Any members of the public clamoring for details about the Murdaugh case, which is sure to be called “the trial of the century” if it hasn’t already, had better thank Newman for his decision.
You might be asking, how did Newman — knowingly or not — help keep the Murdo stories flowing by preventing these agents from testifying in a public court? Here’s how this works.
Journalists rely on sources to help uncover revelations the public wants and needs. Anyone who has seen “All the President’s Men” knows a little about it. These sources, who often wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, are trusted by some journalists to protect their anonymity.
If Newman had allowed the agents to testify, it could have easily scared the sources away from providing information to reporters. The agents are not suspected of being the burglars. Nor were they expected to identify the burglars in court. However, any courtroom effort to reveal whistleblowers anonymously can have a chilling effect on the flow of information.
The sources may have feared that they would be the next to be subpoenaed, or that their names might be given by someone on the witness stand.
While reporters can get information through other means, such as documents and court hearings, sources can provide the kind of revealing and shocking details that the public has shown it wants in the Murdaugh case.
In Harpootlian’s request to have SLED agents testify, he claims information was coming to reporters from sources inside the state Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting Murdaugh. Harpootlian claims the leaked information amounted to a public pressure campaign to charge Murdaugh with murder. The AG’s office denied this.
Harpootlian, a Democratic senator from Columbia, wanted agents to testify in court that they did not leak the information, which, in the process of elimination, could have suggested that someone inside the AG’s office was the source for many of the stories. .
Regardless of who got the information to the reporters or their intent, the result was that the public got more information about the Murdaugh case.
Was Newman thinking about reporters and sources and how to keep the two of them doing the dance that makes the news? Probably not.
Nevertheless, keeping these agents sitting “silently in the front row of the court for The the entire hearing,” Newman helped ensure that sources who wish to remain anonymous would not be silenced by reporters.
Citizens who follow Murdaugh’s news should be thankful for that.