Opening arguments began this week in Walterboro, South Carolina, in the trial of Alex Murdaugh, who is accused of killing his wife and one of his sons in 2021. The Murdaugh saga — involving a prominent attorney’s fall from grace and alleged descent into drugs, debt and murder — is the most talked-about case in the country, inspiring sustained national media attention and an entire podcast devoted to the subject. From FOX News to The New York Times, the Murdaugh trial is everywhere.
Right at the center of it is Jay Bender, a former University of South Carolina media law professor who retired in 2016. (He had a joint appointment with the College of Information and Communications and the School of Law.) Bender has been appointed by S.C. Circuit Judge Clifton Newman to serve as a liaison between the court and the media for the high-profile case.
How did he get tapped for the role?
At a retirement party for Circuit Judge Casey Manning late last year, Bender found himself talking to S.C. Circuit Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, who has been nominated to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Newman, who is overseeing the Murdaugh trial.
“Judge Benjamin said to Judge Newman, ‘You need to get Jay to help you in Walterboro,’” Bender recalls. “I'm not sure that Judge Newman had given that a lot of thought; he had a lot on his plate with this big trial. And so I sent him an email and said, ‘If you're interested, I'd be happy to talk to you.”
It worked out, and Newman couldn’t have found a better candidate. Bender, who earned his undergraduate degree from USC in 1970 and his law degree in 1975, not only taught media law for decades at South Carolina, but also served as the attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, where he earned the trust of journalists throughout the state for his keen advice on navigating issues of access, transparency and the law. He now represents the South Carolina Broadcasters Association.
Bender is now staying at a hotel in the small town of Walterboro, where he will be for the duration of the trial. It’s his job to manage the throng of journalists covering the trial and to make sure they are following the rules of the court. Among the rules are no cell phones in the courtroom, no typing on laptops during the trial and no cameras — other than those that have been pre-approved to gather footage that will be shared with all journalists covering the trial.
As of Jan. 24, the second official day of the trial, there were roughly 40-50 journalists in town to cover the trial, around 15-20 of whom actually have access to the courtroom. The others go to a press overflow facility.
“I feel like Ticketmaster before a Taylor Swift concert, because everybody wants a seat in the courtroom,” Bender says. “But Judge Newman indicated that there would be a limited number of seats reserved for the press, and he identified news organizations that would fill these seats.”
Newman has prioritized outlets that have been covering the case consistently — without regard to the size of the outlet.
“The first one on the list is the Press & Standard from Walterboro,” Bender says. “And the next one is the Hampton County Guardian.” Also included are The State, The Post & Courier, The Wall Street Journal and Mandy Matney’s Murdaugh Murders Podcast.
For those who don’t get in, Bender says, Walterboro has done an excellent job of making accommodations.
“There's an overflow media center that is as good as I've ever seen,” Bender says. “It has tables, chairs, electrical outlets, restrooms, a live feed from the courtroom. And coffee. I've been telling reporters, ‘You really want to go over there if you want to cover the trial … you can't see what's happening or hear what's happening any better in the courtroom than you can from the overflow center.’”
Key to the success of the effort, Bender says, is that Judge Newman is supportive of the role of the media, as are the clerk of court and the City of Walterboro.
“I can tell you that if it weren't for Judge Newman's attitude of openness, it would not be going nearly as smoothly,” Bender says. “I've had friends who were circuit judges, and I can tell you they wouldn't want a camera within 100 miles of this place. But Judge Newman understands the significance of the trial, the importance to the public to see what's happening. And he's making sure that takes place. And I'm just helping in a small way.”