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Could cellphone evidence be the key to solving Stephen Smith's cold case?

Stephen Smith: A Death in Murdaugh Country
Stephen Smith: A Death in Murdaugh Country 42:01

On June 22,  2021, two weeks after Alex Murdaugh, scion of the Murdaugh legal dynasty, reported finding the bodies of his son Paul and wife Maggie fatally shot at the dog kennels of the family's sprawling Moselle property, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, released a simple statement to media: "SLED has opened an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh."

That single sentence was the turning point for Sandy Smith, who'd been fighting to keep her son's case from fading into obscurity, even writing letters to high-level politicians and the FBI. "That was the happiest day of my life," she tells "48 Hours" contributor and CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste in "Stephen Smith: A Death in Murdaugh Country," an all-new "48 Hours" now streaming on Paramount+.  

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith Sandy Smith

For nearly a decade, Sandy Smith has refused to let her son's case grow cold. In the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, Stephen Smith's body was discovered on a rural road in South Carolina's Lowcountry. This is where three generations of the Murdaugh family had occupied the top solicitor's office and enjoyed a century of power and influence, particularly among local law enforcement. Stephen's death was quickly ruled a hit-and-run by the medical examiner, a conclusion that neither Sandy Smith nor the investigators with the South Carolina Highway Patrol believed at the time.

"I wanted a second opinion," Sandy Smith tells Battiste.

With a new high-profile legal team now in her corner, she's finally getting it. A few days after Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter announced they were representing Smith pro bono, SLED chief Mark Keel publicly acknowledged SLED was treating Stephen Smith's death as a homicide. And thanks to more than $130,000 in GoFundMe donations from Sandy Smith's supporters, Bland and Richter were able to arrange an exhumation of Stephen Smith's body in order to conduct an independent autopsy.

When Battiste asks Sandy Smith, "What do you think it took for Stephen's case to finally get the attention it deserves, that you wanted?" Smith doesn't mince words. "Somebody else had to die," she says, referring to Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.

Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of the double murders of his wife and son after a sensational six-week trial watched around the world. Bland and Richter, who were already representing several of Murdaugh's victims of alleged multimillion-dollar financial scams, offered to represent Sandy Smith pro bono. "This is a woman that has fought this battle alone since 2015 … screaming as loud as she could … with not a lot of people listening," says Bland.

"48 Hours" investigates cold case of Stephen Smith 04:25

Almost immediately after Stephen Smith's death, rumors of Murdaugh involvement swarmed the Lowcountry like locusts. Hampton County Guardian editor Michael DeWitt Jr., who is also the author of the book "The Fall of the House of Murdaugh," says he heard the same rumors in far-flung corners: "that at least one Murdaugh child was in a vehicle with other boys and allegedly, somebody in the vehicle … struck the young man with a baseball bat and killed him."  A similar story was repeated to Highway Patrol investigators in recorded interviews, and the Murdaugh name, particularly Buster Murdaugh, comes up dozens of times in the original case file, obtained by "48 Hours" through public records requests.

Buster Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh's oldest son, who according to the case file, had not spoken with Highway Patrol investigators nor publicly addressed the allegations, broke his silence two weeks after his father's conviction. In a statement released by his father's attorney, Jim Griffin, Buster Murdaugh denied the rumors, calling them "baseless" and said in part, "I unequivocally deny any involvement [in Stephen Smith's] death." Buster Murdaugh issued a second denial several months later during a televised interview on Fox Nation. And for the first time, he also offered an alibi, stating he was with his mother and brother at their beach house at the time Stephen Smith was killed.

"We are aware of no evidence today that would suggest that any Murdaugh played any role in Stephen Smith's death or played any role in trying to cover up the investigation into his death," says Richter.

But the Murdaughs and Smith's case remain inextricably linked by SLED's findings. Richter tells "48 Hours," "Somehow, some way in the Murdaugh murder investigation, a new thread was opened up into Stephen Smith."

While SLED has kept its investigation close to the vest, what evidence investigators found while looking into the Murdaugh murders that led them back to Stephen Smith has been the subject of intense speculation. "Whatever it was, it's major enough for … the highest police organization in the state to open up its own investigation," says DeWitt.

Given the pivotal role cellphone evidence played in Alex Murdaugh's trial, Bland and Richter say it's possible evidence from Stephen's tablet or phone, which was found in his front pocket,  may play a key role in this case, as well. But Sandy Smith says she had asked the FBI to crack Stephen's phone back in 2016.

"Do you know if ... anyone actually was able to read Stephen's text messages or see where he might've been based on cellphone evidence?" asks Battiste.

"What I heard from the FBI agent," says Sandy Smith, is "there was a lot of interesting information in the phone that needed to be looked at." But she says neither local nor state authorities pursued the case further, and Stephen's case went cold. "There's something in that phone that nobody wants out there," she tells Battiste.

Sandy Smith has been fighting to keep her son's case from fading into obscurity, even writing letters to high-level politicians and the FBI. AP

According to Sandy Smith's attorneys, SLED now has all of the evidence in the Stephen Smith case, including his phone and tablet, and an investigative grand jury is zeroing in on potential suspects. Meanwhile, Sandy Smith is keeping hope alive that she will get answers and justice soon. She announced a scholarship fund in Stephen's name, and she's offering a $30,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

During an independent investigation by Sandy Smith's team led by Dr. Kenny Kinsey, who recently retired as chief deputy of the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Office and was an expert witness in Alex Murdaugh's murder trial, the baseball bat theory was ruled out. Kinsey and Dr. Michelle DuPre, a retired investigator and forensic pathologist who oversaw Stephen's new autopsy, theorized that Stephen had died from a single fatal blow to the head and died on the road where he was found.

How did SC teen Stephen Smith die? "48 Hours" obtains findings of independent investigation 01:48

"The injuries can tell us so much about what happened," says DuPre. And in this case, she says they did. 

"Whatever hit him was fast and it was large," Kinsey tells Battiste.

These and other startling findings, shared exclusively with Battiste, are part of the latest "48 Hours" report.

"How confident are you that you know what happened to Stephen Smith that night?" Battiste asks Kinsey. "I'm as close to a degree of scientific certainty as I've ever felt," he says.

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