‘Substantial progress’ in Stephen Smith homicide investigation, family attorney says

Published: Jun. 19, 2023 at 6:27 PM EDT
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HAMPTON, S.C. (WIS) - “Substantial progress is being made in the homicide investigation of Stephen Smith, according to an attorney for the family.

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

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

In March, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced that it was devoting more resources to the case, and had been investigating it as a homicide.

Eric Bland, who along with his law partner Ronnie Richter was retained to represent the Smith family earlier this year, said he was told in his biweekly call with SLED Chief Mark Keel that there are several people with relevant information surrounding Smith’s death.

Keel is optimistic that some of those people will talk, according to Bland.

“He said, ‘Look, Eric, I am optimistic in a positive way, I see progress being made, real progress,’” Bland said. “‘We think that we’ve talked to a number of people, and we think that there’s five or six people that have information. We’ve learned some things we didn’t know already,’ he told me.”

Questions have lingered about the death of Smith, a former classmate of Buster Murdaugh, since his mysterious death.

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

Bland also said he has reason to believe that the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office has empaneled the state grand jury in the case, and is issuing subpoenas.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

The Smith family moved forward with a second autopsy of Stephen’s body a few months ago, led by forensic pathologists Dr. D’Michelle DuPre and Dr. Dan Schultz.

“We were comforted by the fact that even though the vault was compromised and water got into the coffin, that even after eight years, the autopsy was able to be performed with aplomb and everything that they wanted to find out they were able to find out,” Bland said.

The results of the autopsy have not yet been released publicly.

SLED has already received the results of Smith’s second autopsy, Bland said, and the attorneys will be receiving a written report on its findings to review at some point this week.

As authorities are taking a closer look at the eight-year-old cold case, Stephen’s mother Sandy has just one objective, according to Bland.

“Sandy Smith is not looking for somebody to be charged with Stephen’s murder, she’s looking for an explanation,” he said. “She isn’t going to be upset if there’s not a Murdaugh connection to what happened to her son.”

Buster Murdaugh has emphatically denied any involvement in Smith’s killing.

“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,” he said in a March statement.

Murdaugh’s statement goes on to say, “This has gone on far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Bland said Sandy Smith is “just a mother who wants to know what happened to her son.”

“I think she’s going to get answers,” he said.

Sandy Smith felt those answers were one step closer as SLED made the announcement in March that the agency had been looking into his case as a homicide.

“That was the best information that I’ve had in a long time,” Smith said in an interview last month. “I’ve waited so long to hear that because I knew it was a homicide, and I just had to get people to believe Stephen’s story. That was a great day.”

A SLED spokesperson declined to comment further about the case on Monday.

Bland anticipates that by Labor Day the state will publicly outline its theory of what happened to Smith.

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