Second autopsy done in unsolved South Carolina death probe
A second autopsy was completed this weekend on the exhumed body of a teenager found dead nearly eight years ago on a South Carolina road, according to the family's lawyer, after the public attention surrounding Alex Murdaugh's murder trial boosted a mother's search for answers in the unsolved case.
The mother's lawyers have said there is no evidence linking Stephen Smith's death to the Murdaugh family, and state investigators have remained tight-lipped since taking the case around the same time police said Murdaugh killed his wife and son.
But speculation following the since-disbarred lawyer's recent life sentence for those killings helped Sandy Smith raise more than $87,000 to have her son's body re-examined in an investigation that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has said was never closed since the agency opened it in June 2021.
Attorney Eric Bland, who is representing the family, said in a Sunday statement that this weekend was a "bittersweet" and "trying time." With the second autopsy completed and the investigation unfolding, Bland said Stephen can "really rest at ease."
"Stephen for many, many years, I can only imagine, was not so much at peace in his grave," Bland said in a video. "He probably was pounding on his coffin, saying, to anybody who could hear, 'I was not hit by a car, but I was intentionally killed.' And now we've told him we hear his voice."
Bland's law firm announced Monday that Sandy Smith is offering a $35,000 reward for information leading to the identification and conviction of anyone responsible in her son's death. The announcement directed people to contact South Carolina Law Enforcement Division with any tips.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel has assigned extra regional agents to the homicide investigation in hopes that knowledgeable parties might be more willing to speak now, according to a March 22 press release.
Sandy Smith has long held that her son's death was no accident but the result of a brutal beating. Bland has said being young and gay in the South Carolina Lowcountry could not have been easy for Stephen Smith.
The 19-year-old nursing student was found dead with head injuries and a dislocated arm bent behind him in the middle of a two-lane Hampton County road on July 8, 2015. Police said it appeared he was walking for help after running out of gas. His car was found not far from the body with the gas cap removed and his wallet still inside.
The responding trooper didn't think it was a hit-and-run. The medical examiner who did the initial autopsy theorized his head was struck by the side mirror of a passing truck that did not stop.
Bland has said Stephen Smith didn't make any calls on his cellphone, and his loosely tied shoes remained on his feet. The force of car wrecks often leaves people found without their shoes. The road also contained no skid marks or nearby debris, according to Ronnie Richter, another lawyer for the Smiths.
Stephen Smith went to the same high school as Alex Murdaugh's surviving son, Buster — prompting rumors that the Murdaugh family was involved in Smith's death. Richter emphasized last week that the legal team has no evidence connecting the death in any way to Buster Murdaugh, who has recently denied any involvement amid claims that he called baseless.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.