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Teen found along road now deemed homicide after Murdaugh case reignites interest: Family attorney

Stephen Smith appears in a Facebook photo

Stephen Smith, an LGBTQ activist and nursing student, died under suspicious circumstances in July 2015.

The body of a teenager found along a South Carolina road, whose death was being re-investigated after public interest was renewed during the Alex Murdaugh case, has now been deemed a homicide, the family attorney says.

The extraordinary disclosure of the death investigation of Stephen Smith came in a phone call between lawyer Eric Bland and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Chief Mark Keel.

Bland called it a “shocking announcement after eight years of being proclaimed a highway vehicular manslaughter.”

Smith family attorneys and SLED authorities will combine efforts and share information and resources as the state plans on exhuming Smith’s body, Bland said in a new release.

“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” said Bland. “SLED officials have also welcomed a partnership with Bland Richter in this investigation. They believe that working together will help to bring new leads and information to light and will ultimately lead to a resolution in this case.”

A spokesperson from SLED told Law&Crime on Tuesday night that the investigation into Smith’s death has always been a homicide investigation and now that the Murdaugh case is over, the agency can focus more resources on this case.

Questions were raised about Smith’s death during the investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh in 2021, Bland said.

Police reopened the case in 2021 after new evidence was revealed during the double murder investigation, Bland said.

In March, Smith’s mother, Sandy, started a GoFundMe page to raise money for an independent autopsy.

Police said initially said Smith was hit by a car and died on a road near Murdaugh’s estate in 2015. An autopsy said the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head due to a motor vehicle crash. The manner of death was undetermined.

“Smith’s family believes he was murdered and wants an unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts,” Bland said.

Bland said that law enforcement would be present when the family plans to exhume and re-examine Smith’s body.

“We are committed to finding out what really happened and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves,” said Bland and Ronnie Richter in a joint statement.

SLED also said they were waiting until the Murdaugh trial was over before announcing the news out of concern that witnesses would be less forthcoming under the “Murdaugh sphere of influence,” Bland said.

“SLED is publicly supporting us, Sandy Smith, and her efforts to find out what really happened to her son,” Richter said. “They have expressed their condolences to the Smith family and will continue to work diligently to bring those responsible for Stephen’s death to justice. We are proud to be their partner in finding justice.”

Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to two life terms for killing his wife and son earlier this month.

On Monday morning, Alex Murdaugh’s attorney, Jim Griffin, released a statement on Twitter on behalf of Buster Murdaugh, who was a high school classmate of Stephen Smith and knew one another.

Despite a lack of evidence, the investigative file into Smith’s death includes some people reporting unsubstantiated rumors they had heard concerning Buster Murdaugh being somehow involved in Smith’s death. However, Buster Murdaugh has never been named a suspect or person of interest in the case. On Monday morning, Buster Murdaugh released a statement saying, “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Buster Murdaugh added, “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.”

Eric Bland said Monday they have no knowledge that Buster Murdaugh was involved in any way in Smith’s death.

“As we sit here today, Buster is a victim. He lost a mother, a brother, and now his father’s in jail. Buster, as we know, has nothing to do with this,” Bland said.

Law&Crime’s Angenette Levy contributed to this report

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