‘It’s Stephen’s time:’ Attorney for family of Stephen Smith outlines next steps in fight for justice

Published: Mar. 24, 2023 at 9:37 PM EDT

HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. – (WIS) Questions surrounding the 2015 death of Stephen smith, former classmate of Buster Murdaugh, have lingered for years.

There is a renewed push for justice after the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced this week that it is investigating his death as a homicide.

The 19-year-old’s body was found along a rural Hampton County road in July 2015.

His death was initially ruled a hit-and-run.

This is something his mother Sandy never believed.

SLED has announced that it will now be devoting more resources to finding out who killed Smith.

Smith family attorney Eric Bland said that SLED’s announcement, coupled with the family’s push for an exhumation and new autopsy, is a chance to “reverse history,” and shed light on the truth about what happened to Smith.

“Right now, it’s Stephen’s time,” Bland said. “And I think SLED is good enough to find out what happened.”

Bland believes the family will have permission to move forward with an exhumation of Stephen’s body at some point next week.

Bland and his law partner Ronnie Richter were retained by the Smith family earlier this month.

RELATED COVERAGE: SLED investigating Stephen Smith’s death as a murder

Smith’s body was found along a rural Hampton County road more than seven years ago.

The attorneys have already hired D’Michelle Dupre, a forensic pathologist, who will lead the renewed investigation into Stephen’s death.

This will take place in conjunction with SLED, according to Bland.

SLED Chief Mark Keel called bland on Tuesday to update him on the agency’s investigation.

“They’re reversing eight years of official findings and now saying Stephen was the victim of a homicide, that’s pretty extraordinary,” Bland said. “The fact that they would call me on the phone, a private lawyer, and tell me that. The fact that they would share that with me. The fact that they would say they want to participate and work in conjunction with our investigation. That’s pretty extraordinary, the fact that we’re sharing information, that usually doesn’t happen.”

SLED reopened the case in 2021 based on information discovered while investigating the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.

Bland said he asked Keel what specific evidence the agency uncovered led to that decision.

Keel told him that he could not reveal that information.

Both Sandy Smith and her attorneys feel that his death had something to do with the fact that he was an openly gay young man, which they say was frowned upon in Hampton County at that time.

“We believe, Sandy believes that he had relationships and was in a relationship with a very prominent person,” Bland said. “Sandy was told by Stephen the week before died that the following week he was going to go fishing in Key West with a very prominent person. Sandy asked, ‘Who was it?’ He wasn’t willing to give the name because that was a part of his life that he did keep secret.”

Bland said Keel told him that there are five or six people whom SLED believes to have information that could reveal how Stephen died, or who killed him.

Those people may be more apt to speak up in the wake of Murdaugh’s murder conviction, Bland said.

“There’s a certain guarded nature down there in the Lowcountry are reticent about people speaking out at all against law enforcement or against the Murdaughs,” he said. “But now with that conviction of Alex, and some of the citizens seeing the courageous people that came in that courtroom and put their hand up, to tell the truth, and said things that were contrary to the interests of Alex and the Murdaughs, and they’re okay. And Alex was found guilty. And they stood tall. Chief Keel thinks the timing is right for people to come forward.”

SLED’s announcement this week is bittersweet for Sandy Smith, according to Bland.

In a way, she feels vindicated by the news, he said.

“On the one hand, she feels like as a mother the fight has been worth it,” Bland said. “Remember, for eight years she’s saying, ‘No, my son was murdered somewhere else, he wasn’t hit by a car.’ And some people were saying, ‘Look, lady, give it up. He was hit by a car. He was found in the middle of the highway.’”

However, Sandy Smith is now having to relive the pain of knowing her son was targeted.

According to Bland, SLED has cracked into Stephen’s cell phone.

He believes that technology, whether it is in the form of a text or an email, will lead to answers in this case and could be the key to solving Stephen’s murder.

Bland also said that a rape kit was conducted on Smith by the South Carolina Highway Patrol after his death, but never tested.

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