The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating the death of a 19-year-old nursing student as a homicide after reopening the case amid its investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, family lawyers said Tuesday.
Stephen Smith was found dead on a rural road in Hampton County on July 8, 2015. His death was ruled a hit-and-run after an initial investigation, which his family has criticized.
The case went cold until a fatal boat crash involving former attorney Richard “Alex” Murdaugh’s son Paul in 2019 again brought it into the public spotlight.
The law enforcement division reopened Smith’s case in June 2021 “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh,” a spokesperson said at the time. Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of his wife and son earlier this month.
SLED Division Chief Mark Keel told the Smith family’s attorneys that his death is now being considered a homicide, “a shocking announcement after eight years of being proclaimed a highway vehicular manslaughter,” according to a statement from the Bland Richter law firm Tuesday night.
The firm has a long history of successfully representing clients in high-profile cases, including multiple victims in the Murdaugh saga.
According to the statement, Bland Richter co-founder Eric Bland and Keel “have both committed to combining efforts, sharing information and resources as the state moves forward with exhuming Stephen Smith’s body and its subsequent investigations.”
“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” Bland said.
Sandy Smith, Smith’s mother, had a short but excited message when she learned that state police are now moving forward with his case as a murder investigation.
“I’ve been waiting on this news for almost 8 years!” Smith emailed to The Hampton County Guardian Tuesday night. “I’m in shock, I’m elated, I’m waiting for the next chapter!”
Investigators, family’s attorneys working together on leads
Once Murdaugh’s murder trial ended, Smith opened a GoFundMe page in March to raise money for an exhumation and independent autopsy of her son’s remains. As of Tuesday afternoon, the GoFundMe had raised more than $80,000.
“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,” the family’s attorneys said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials said they did not need to exhume Smith’s body to determine his death was a homicide, but they will participate in any exhumation to gather more evidence, according to the statement.
The law enforcement division also has revealed on the phone call that investigators “were waiting until the Murdaugh trial was over before making this announcement out of concern that witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence,” Bland said.
Since Murdaugh’s trial, more resources have been and will be devoted to Smith’s case, authorities reportedly said, and investigators now believe the people who know what happened to Smith may come forward.
Law enforcement “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.”