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Attorneys representing the family of a South Carolina teenager believed to have been murdered on or near a dark road in the summer of 2015 said the state’s top law enforcement agency explicitly mentioned the Murdaugh family murders during an unusual phone call about the controversial Stephen Smith case earlier this week.
During that phone call, one of the attorneys said, an unidentified “piece of 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 during separate interviews with the 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, of blunt force trauma, in Hampton County, on July 8, 2015. Shifting narratives plagued the case. According to his mother, Sandy Smith, the family was told her son was shot and beaten up before authorities declared his death a hit-and-run. That eventual determination never sat right with her.
Bland and Richter are donating their time to the Smith case. They are working toward exhuming the victim’s body and securing an independent autopsy to ascertain his cause of death.
According to the lawyers, law enforcement now wants to be part of that process, citing the phone call with SLED Chief Mark Keel.
“Obviously, it was an extraordinary phone call, and out of the blue, and surprising, because very rarely would the head of SLED call a private attorney and tell that attorney what the state’s position is, discuss with them the case – where they are, where they’re going – and then really offer up to collaborate and be cooperative with my client in the process of discovering what happened to Stephen Smith on July 8, 2015,” Bland told Law&Crime. “It took me, honestly, about a minute or two really to collect my composure because I really didn’t understand the phone call. It was so stunning.”
More Law&Crime coverage: Teen found along road now deemed homicide after Murdaugh case reignites interest: Family attorney
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 given up on this case.”
Bland then relayed what the SLED chief told him that led to Tuesday’s public homicide determination volte-face.
“He said, ‘Contrary to what everybody is saying, this is still an open and full investigation,”” Bland said. “He said, ‘I understand that you want to exhume Stephen’s body.’ He said, ‘We would not oppose that. But I don’t think you need to do that.’ And I said, ‘Chief, what do you mean? We have to show or prove that he didn’t die from a vehicular accident, that it was an intentional killing.
“And he said, ‘Well, I’m gonna communicate to you now the State of South Carolina’s official position: And that is, the State of South Carolina’s official position is that Stephen Smith did not die as the result of a vehicle accident or collision on July 8th. 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 given permission to do so.
The Smith family will still go forward with 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 teen found on SC road goes inside new investigation after Murdaugh case reignites public interest
“For history purposes, we have to vindicate Sandy Smith,” Bland told Law&Crime. “She spends eight years as the lone town crier saying, ‘Somebody needs to look into my son’s death. It’s not what has been represented by the state.’”
As a result of their conversation, the family’s exhumation and autopsy would be collaborative going forward with SLED’s help.
The Smith family attorney said SLED made a connection to 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 determine who did it. We’re not in the business of solving crimes and prosecuting people. That’s what SLED has to do. And I’m really happy that you’re committed to this. And he said: ‘We’re so committed that we’re reassigning a lot of the resources that we had dedicated for the Murdaugh case, in the Lowcountry, to the Stephen Smith case.”
Smith family attorney Richter relayed similar feelings in an earlier interview with Levy on Wednesday morning.
“We got an amazing phone call yesterday,” Richter told Law&Crime. “The state’s top cop calls you and says: ‘Look, if you guys are planning to exhume that body because you feel like you need to convince us and SLED that there’s something more, something different here than a hit-and-run, you don’t need to do that. So that was an amazing phone call. And he communicated to us that SLED is on this investigation, that they do not see it as a simple hit-and-run and that they are putting resources towards it, especially now that those resources are freed up after the Murdaugh murder trials.”
Bland said Keel reiterated 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 that have this information,’” the attorney said, relaying Keel’s words from the conversation again. “They might not know who did it – but they have relevant information.’ And he said: ‘We really felt like during the whole Murdaugh trial period and the Murdaugh investigation over the last two years, a lot of people in the Lowcountry were reticent in speaking – they knew things, but they wouldn’t speak. But we believe now with the verdict of guilty, of Alex Murdaugh, that people will change now and be willing to speak.”
Bland then laid it on the line, again citing Keel.
“He said, and I concur, that: ‘I don’t think that Murdaugh’s stranglehold is as strong as it once was on that region of the state.’”
In a Wednesday press release issued after Bland’s statement, SLED wrote: “On June 23, 2021, SLED opened an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith after SLED Agents received information about his death and subsequently reviewed the SCHP investigative file. From SCHP case notes, it was apparent that the SCHP did not believe Mr. Smith’s death was a hit and run by a motor vehicle.”
In January, Law&Crime reported that SLED found evidence to reopen the case into Smith’s death when investigating Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s murders sometime in 2021.
Angenette Levy contributed to this report.
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