Attorneys for the family of Stephen Smith say their effort to exhume the 19-year-old’s body is an attempt to provide his mother answers about what led to his death – and has nothing to do with the family of Alex Murdaugh.
“This is not an Alex Murdaugh 2.0, or any Murdaugh 2.0,” Eric Bland, an attorney for Smith’s mother, told reporters in a virtual news conference Monday. “This is the Stephen Smith 2.0. It’s all about Stephen.”
Smith’s mother and her attorneys announced they would petition a court to have his body – discovered in July 2015 in the middle of a Hampton County, South Carolina, road – exhumed for a private autopsy to seek what a GoFundMe page described as “a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts.”
“We think that he did not die on that road that fateful night,” Eric Bland said Monday. “We think that there were other reasons and other causes that caused his death.”
“Our job is not to find out who did it,” he added. “That’s not what we do, we’re not law enforcement, we’re not doing a criminal case … What we’re really trying to do is give a mother answers.”
Smith’s death was initially deemed a hit-and-run, but the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced in June 2021 they were reopening a probe into his death based on information learned while investigating the killings of Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son. The disgraced former attorney was found guilty in their murders earlier this month and sentenced to life in prison.
Authorities have not disclosed any connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family. Monday’s news conference came the same day Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, issued a statement rejecting “vicious rumors” and denying any involvement in Smith’s death. Bland said Monday the attorneys for Smith’s family would not “indulge in rumors and speculation.”
SLED confirmed it continued to proceed with the investigation in a statement Sunday, telling CNN, “SLED has made progress in the death investigation of Stephen Smith, however this investigation remains active and ongoing.”
Smith’s family has raised more than $60,000 via GoFundMe to put against the re-examination of his death, and the attorneys Monday promised full transparency as they hire a team of experts to reinvestigate the case.
The first step in that process, they said, was petitioning a court to show there was good reason to exhume the body of the 19-year-old nursing student.
“We’re going to have to petition the court, show facts that would indicate that a fresh set of eyes, a new autopsy, may yield a different conclusion – that Stephen was not killed on Sandy Run Road in Bamberg County, that maybe he was killed somewhere else,” Bland said.
Ronnie Richter, another attorney, pointed to the facts of the case and the scene where Smith was found as reasons for their doubt.
“There were no skid marks around his body. There was no vehicular debris found. His shoes were still loosely tied on his feet,” Richter said, noting Smith’s car was located about 3 miles away with its gas cap removed.
“While it would appear that his car broke down and he had walked for help, he never called for help from the cell phone that was found on his body,” Richter said. “Sandy Smith has never accepted the conclusion of the cursory investigation that followed his death, which concluded that his death was a result of a hit-and-run.”
Sandy Smith said her son would not have walked down the road to home, but through the woods or a nearby cornfield.
“He would have made sure that he was not seen by anyone,” she said, and he also would not have left his wallet in his car. “And he would have called his sister at least, because she was the closest to the house.”
Bland raised the idea that Smith was targeted because he was gay, telling reporters the young man “had to live a secret life.”
“Being young and gay in the Low country was not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy today, certainly wasn’t easy in 2015,” Bland said. “He was proud of being gay. However, he had to be cautious. And people who have to be cautious have to be secretive.”
The investigation will also involve looking at Smith’s life, Bland added, and what kind of communication the teen had and who he was associated with in the days before his death. Anything learned, Bland said, would be shared with law enforcement.
Shortly before Monday’s news conference, Buster Murdaugh issued his own statement denying any involvement in Smith’s death. Authorities have not publicly linked Buster Murdaugh to the case.
“I have tried my best,” he said, “to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continues 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.”
“These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false,” said Buster Murdaugh. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”
Asked about Buster’s statement during the news conference, Richter said, “We’ve not mentioned Buster’s name one time. This is not about Buster Murdaugh. This is about Stephen Smith, about trying to get answers to questions that his mother desperately needs answers for.”