COLUMBIA, S.C. — Plans to exhume Stephen Smith’s body are proceeding rapidly and will involve a team of state and national experts, one of the attorneys for Stephen Smith’s mother said Friday.
“As far as we’re concerned, his body is a crime scene,” attorney Ronnie Richter said.
Richter’s statements in an interview with The State Media Co. came after a flurry of state and national renewed interest last week in the death of Smith, 19, an openly gay teenager whose body was found in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, in the middle of the two-lane Sandy Run Road in rural Hampton County.
Smith’s death was originally ruled as caused by a hit-and-run in 2015. But Tuesday, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told The State newspaper his agency had discarded that theory and was conducting a murder investigation.
Over the years, numerous news stories have mentioned the family of Alex Murdaugh, the disgraced Lowcountry lawyer, in connection with Smith’s death. To date, no evidence has tied Smith to any members of the Murdaugh family. Stories have also mentioned that Buster, Murdaugh’s older son, was a classmate of Smith’s at Wade Hampton High School in Hampton County years ago.
Buster, 26, issued a public statement last week denying he had anything to do with Smith’s death. Murdaugh was convicted earlier this month in a Colleton County jury trial of the 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and younger son, Paul.
Keel’s public statement acknowledging the murder investigation came a day after Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, announced that she had hired attorneys Richter and Eric Bland to assist in the investigation of her son’s death. Richter and Bland are widely credited with being instrumental in the fall of 2021 in exposing Murdaugh’s numerous alleged financial crimes for allegedly stealing from clients and his own law firm.
Keel’s announcement has focused renewed attention on the 2015 ruling by Medical University of South Carolina forensic pathologist Dr. Erin Presnell that Smith’s death was a hit-and-run, even after S.C. Highway Patrol investigators said they believed that injuries to Smith’s body and other evidence were inconsistent with a hit-and-run.
In a case note contained in a report produced by the Highway Patrol’s elite Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, lead investigator Todd Proctor wrote that he spoke with Presnell in person and expressed disagreement with her assessment that Smith’s death was by a hit-and-run. Presnell had a “negative tone,” Proctor wrote in the report, and said it was “my job to figure out what it was that struck (Smith), not hers.”
Presnell did not change her determination between the draft and final report. Writing in her conclusion, “It is the opinion of the pathologist that the decedent died as the result of blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash, in which the decadent was a pedestrian struck by a vehicle.”
“I’m no pathologist but I was blessed with God-given common sense and from what I saw at the scene of the accident, it seemed like an impossibility to me,” Richter said when asked about the pathologist’s conclusions.
‘It was a murder,’ SLED chief says
On Tuesday, Keel made it clear that SLED agreed with the Highway Patrol investigators.
Keel also has communicated his new assessment of the case to Bland and Richter, who made SLED’s new position public for the first time.
“We do believe it was a murder. We don’t believe it was a hit-and-run,” Keel said.
Richter told The State that he wants the exhumation to establish the cause of death.
“What happened to Stephen. Or how was he killed?” Richter said. “We can accomplish that through an independent forensic review.”
SLED has other responsibilities: to identify and arrest those who killed Smith and determine the motive, Richter said.
Richter declined to discuss a date for the exhumation, emphasizing that Smith’s family did not want a public spectacle.
“The family wants this handled with privacy and delicacy, as you can imagine,” Richter said.
It will be “kind of a quasi-public-private operation,” said Richter, stressing the family will cooperate with SLED in the investigation.
The attorneys are seeking South Carolina experts to assist in the exhumation as well as one or more from outside the state.
“We want S.C. eyes on it, but we also want this to have a national perspective,” Richter said.
Highway patrol investigators collected Smith’s phone, tablet and computer for analysis, performed gunshot residue tests on his hands and administered a rape kit, according to the patrol’s MAIT records.
Eight years later, the results of any gunshot residue test and the fate of the rape kit, which is designed to preserve physical evidence of a sexual assault, are unclear.
“Our understanding is a kit was used,” Richter said. “What it revealed or what the evidence preserved from it was, I have no idea.”
Since a public announcement last Monday that Sandy Smith had hired Richter and Bland, as well as Keel’s statement Tuesday that SLED was treating Smith’s death as a murder, numerous stories have hit national news media about the death. Sandy Smith has been interviewed on CNN and MSNBC.
“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” Bland said.
Richter said he and Bland welcome the increased media and SLED attention.
“The spotlight is the thing that’s going to break this case,” Richter said. Whoever tells law enforcement first about a crime “gets the best deal,” Richter said.
“To whoever is out there, don’t be the last guy to come forward.”
(Island Packet reporter Blake Douglas contributed to this story.)