Lawyers representing the family of a South Carolina teenager who was allegedly murdered on or near a dark road in the summer of 2015 said the state’s top law enforcement agency explicitly mentioned the murders of the Murdaugh family in an unusual phone call about the controversial Stephen Smith case earlier. this week.
During that phone call, one of the attorneys said, unidentified “evidence” related to Smith’s death was uncovered during the state’s investigation into the Murdaugh murders.
Smith family attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter broke the news in separate interviews with Law&Crime Network correspondent Angenette Levy on Wednesday morning.
The death of the gay teenager has long been more than mysterious.
He was found dead on Sandy Run Road from blunt force trauma in Hampton County on July 8, 2015. Changing accounts have plagued the case. According to his mother, Sandy Smith, the family learned that her son had been shot and beaten before authorities ruled his death a hit-and-run. This eventual determination never pleased him.
Bland and Richter donate their time to the Smith case. They are working to exhume the victim’s body and obtain an independent autopsy to determine the cause of his death.
The lawyers say law enforcement now wants to be part of that process, citing the phone call with SLED chief Mark Keel.
“Obviously this was an extraordinary, and out of the blue, and surprising phone call, because very rarely would the head of SLED call a private attorney and tell that attorney what the state’s position is, argue with them of the case – where they are, where they are going – and then really offer to collaborate and be cooperative with my client in the process of finding out what happened to Stephen Smith on July 8, 2015,” Bland told Law&Crime “Honestly, it took me about a minute or two to regain my composure because I really didn’t understand the phone call. It was so mind-blowing.”
More Law&Crime coverage: Teenager found along the road is now considered a homicide after the Murdaugh case revives interest: Family lawyer
Keel referenced several recent press conferences with Sandy Smith, Bland told Law&Crime. The attorney said Keel wanted to reassure him that “the state has not dropped this case.”
Bland then relayed what the SLED chief told him, which led to Tuesday’s public homicide determination flip-flop.
“He said, ‘Contrary to what everyone says, this is still an open and full investigation,” Bland said. “He said, ‘I understand you want to exhume Stephen’s body. “He said, ‘We wouldn’t object to that. But I don’t think you need to.’ And I said, ‘Chief, what do you mean? We have to show or prove that he didn’t die in a traffic accident, that it was an intentional murder.
“And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to give you now the official position of the State of South Carolina: And that is, the official position of the State of South Carolina is that Stephen Smith did not die following a car accident or collision on July 8. He was, in fact, the victim of a homicide.
Bland said he asked Keel for permission to speak publicly about what SLED had determined and was granted permission to do so.
The Smith family will pursue the exhumation and independent autopsy, the attorney said, to prove that the coroner’s report, death certificate and pathologist’s report were wrong.
More Law&Crime coverage: ‘I’m going to fight for him’: Mother of SC teen found on road to be re-investigated after Murdaugh case rekindles public interest
“For historical reasons, we have to agree with Sandy Smith,” Bland told Law&Crime. “She spends eight years as a lone crier saying, ‘Someone needs to investigate my son’s death. This is not what was represented by the state.
Following their conversation, the exhumation and autopsy of the family would be done in conjunction with the assistance of SLED.
The Smith family attorney says SLED linked the recent double murder trial and conviction of infamous Lowcountry lawyer and legal scion Alex Murdaugh, who is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing his wife and youngest son at the family’s hunting lodge in June 2021.
“Our job was to find out what happened to Stephen and why,” Bland said, paraphrasing his call with the SLED official. “Your job is to figure out who did it. We are not here to solve crimes and prosecute people. That’s what SLED should do. And I’m really glad you’re committing to that. And he said, “We’re so committed that we’re reallocating a lot of the resources that we had spent on the Murdaugh case, in the Lowcountry, to the Stephen Smith case.”
Smith family attorney Richter expressed similar sentiments in an earlier interview with Levy on Wednesday morning.
“We got an amazing phone call yesterday,” Richter told Law&Crime. “The best cop in the state calls you and says, ‘Look, if you’re thinking of exhuming this body because you feel like you have to convince us and SLED that there’s something more, something something different here than a hit and run, you don’t have to do that. So that was an amazing phone call. And he let us know that SLED is on this investigation, that they don’t see it as just a hit-and-run and dedicate resources to it, especially now that those resources are being released after the Murdaugh murder trials.
Bland said Keel reiterated that there would be resources, collaboration and commitment from SLED to find out who killed Stephen Smith.
“And he said, ‘Look, we think it’s a small circle of people who have this information,'” the attorney said, again relating Keel’s words from the conversation. “They may not know who did it, but they have relevant information.” And he said: ‘We really felt that throughout the whole period of the Murdaugh trial and the Murdaugh inquiry over the past couple of years, a lot of people in the Lowcountry were reluctant to talk – they knew things, but they wouldn’t talk. But we believe now with the guilty verdict, from Alex Murdaugh, that people are going to change now and be ready to talk.
Bland then put it on the line, again citing Keel.
“He said, and I agree, that, ‘I don’t think Murdaugh’s hold on this area of the state is as strong as it once was. “”
In a press release issued Wednesday after Bland’s statement, SLED wrote, “On June 23, 2021, SLED initiated an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith after SLED officers received information about his death and subsequently reviewed the SCHP investigation file. From the SCHP case notes, it was apparent that the SCHP did not believe that Mr. Smith’s death was a hit-and-run by a motor vehicle.
In January, Law&Crime reported that SLED had found evidence to reopen the case in Smith’s death during the investigation into the 2021 murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.
Angenette Levy contributed to this report.
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