By LAUREN SILVER Court TV
HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (Court TV) — Eight years after his body was found in the middle of the road, the tragic death of Stephen Smith is now being considered a homicide.
In July 2015, 19-year-old Smith was found along a road in Hampton County. He had suffered a head injury, and his death was classified as a hit-and-run, with investigators saying Smith was killed after he ran out of gas and began walking along the road.
“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” Eric Bland, co-founder of Bland Richter Law Firm, said in a statement.
The Bland Richter Law firm announced Wednesday that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) had re-classified Smith’s death as a homicide.
In a news release, SLED offered a timeline of events in the Smith investigation. SLED investigators were first contacted July 8, 2015, to process the scene. SLED denied being involved in the investigation into Smith’s death in 2015, and said it was not asked to join in the investigation until 2021, when the agency received information about Smith’s death and reviewed the investigative file from the South Carolina Highway Patrol. Case notes from SCHP indicate the agency’s investigators did not believe Smith was killed by a vehicle.
SLED said its investigation into Smith’s death was never closed and remains ongoing.
Questions were raised about Smith’s death during the investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh in 2021, for which Alex Murdaugh was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, started a GoFundMe campaign to exhume her son’s body and conduct an independent autopsy in the case. The fundraiser, which had an initial goal of $15,000, raised more than $87,000. Smith has retained Bland Richter to represent her in the case.
“SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith’s body to convince them his death was a homicide,” Bland and Ronnie Richter said in a joint statement. “However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence. We are committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves.”
SLED Chief Mark Keel revealed in a phone call to Bland that the agency had been waiting until Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial ended before making the announcement “out of concern that the witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence.”
In an interview with Court TV’s Chanley Painter, Sandy Smith said that she believes her son was beaten to death and that his body was placed in the road to make it appear that he was the victim of a hit and run.
“Somebody was there,” Sandy said. “It was more than one person that done this. And somebody knows.”
Investigators have said the condition of Smith’s body was not consistent with being the victim of a hit-and-run, in part because his clothing was intact, his loose-fitting shoes remained on his feet and his cell phone was found, undamaged, in his pocket.
Investigators have not outlined what connection, if any, the Murdaugh family had to Stephen Smith.
In the Netflix docuseries “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” private investigator Steve Peterson, who was hired by Sandy Smith, said that people he interviewed said they had heard Buster Murdaugh was involved with Smith’s death.
Paterson said he was frustrated because while Buster’s name was mentioned several times on the highway patrol tapes, he was never interviewed by police.
On March 20, Murdaugh family spokesperson Amanda Loveday released a statement on behalf of Buster Murdaugh denying any involvement in the case.
“I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother. I love them so much and miss them terribly.
I haven’t spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with their deaths and my father’s incarceration.
Before, during and since my father’s trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story. This has gone on far too long.
These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.
I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.
I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”
SLED has asked anyone with information about Stephen Smith’s death to come forward and contact their tip line at 1-800-CALL-SLED or contact Renée Wunderlich at [email protected].
Court TV digital producer Katie McLaughlin contributed to this report.
For more coverage on the Alex Murdaugh trial, visit: https://www.courttv.com/trending/alex-murdaugh-murder-mystery-trial/