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Stephen Smith's death is being investigated as a homicide, officials confirm

Stephen Smith's 2015 death ruled a homicide
Stephen Smith's 2015 death ruled a homicide 03:04

The 2015 death of Stephen Smith is being investigated as a homicide, officials have confirmed, years after the teenager's body was found on a country road near the home of disgraced South Carolina attorney and convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh.

The State Law Enforcement Division in South Carolina, known as SLED, agreed Smith's cold case should be probed as a homicide, attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter, of the litigation firm Bland Richter, which previously announced that they are representing Smith's family, said in statements on Tuesday. A spokesperson for SLED later confirmed that development to CBS News.

"Bland Richter Law Firm is proud to announce that after an extraordinary disclosure phone call with South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Chief Mark Keel, that the death of Stephen Smith is now considered a HOMICIDE, a shocking announcement after eight years of being proclaimed a highway vehicular manslaughter," the attorneys said in a news release, adding that Bland Richter and SLED will be "combining efforts, sharing information and resources as the state moves forward with exhuming Stephen Smith's body and its subsequent investigations."

In a separate statement shared on Twitter, Bland and Richter said their firm is "committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves."

Stephen Smith, whose mysterious death close to the Murdaugh home raised questions, is to be exhumed. CBS News

Smith was found dead on a rural road in Hampton County, near the Murdaugh family's estate, in 2015. Although it was suggested that the 19-year-old was killed in a hit-and-run, questions about the circumstances surrounding his death lingered long after the initial probe and were revived amid the national attention paid to the infamous double murder of Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh in June 2021. 

A "48 Hours" report on Smith's death noted that the state highway patrol originally suggested the teenager had died "from blunt force trauma on his head," although authorities always disagreed about whether his injuries were consistent with a vehicular strike. When Smith's body was discovered, his yellow Chevy was found about three miles from the site with his wallet still inside and the car's gas gap unscrewed, which led state police to suggest at first that Smith experienced car trouble and started walking down the road before being hit, "48 Hours" reported. 

However, doubt among the state police officers who responded can be heard on at least one audio recording, where an officer says "nothing appears to be a vehicular accident" while discussing Smith's death. His case was reopened in 2021 as evidence was collected during the subsequent investigation into the deaths of Maggie and Paul at the Murdaugh family estate. 

A statement released Wednesday afternoon by SLED states the investigative agency had provided resources for but not conducted the initial 2015 investigation, and had never closed the case it opened in 2021.

"Progress has been made, and SLED's investigation is active and ongoing. Since the beginning of SLED's investigation, the goal has been to find out how Mr. Smith died and find the person(s) responsible for his death," the release states.

SLED Chief Mark Keel has assigned additional agents to the case, according to the release.

Alex Murdaugh was convicted on March 2 by a South Carolina jury of killing both his wife and youngest son in the gruesome murders, and publicity surrounding the investigation and criminal trial fueled previous suspicions and rumors linking the Murdaugh family to other unsolved deaths in their community. A Netflix documentary series examining the series of deaths returned attention to Smith's case.

Smith's family requested that his body be exhumed with the intention of undergoing an independent autopsy. The family launched a GoFundMe campaign earlier this month to raise money for the process, which Smith's mother, Sandy Smith, said could cost as much as $7,000. 

"We need a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts. There was no debris in the road, and his injuries were not consistent with a hit-and-run," Sandy Smith wrote in a description that appeared on the GoFundMe page. The campaign has garnered more than $87,000 in the few weeks since it became live online, far surpassing its original goal of $15,000.

Smith attended high school with the surviving Murdaugh child, Buster Murdaugh, who released a statement this week about the investigation into his death.

"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," Murdaugh said in the statement. "I love them so much and miss them terribly."

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