A grand jury is hearing evidence in the death of Stephen Smith, an openly gay teenager found dead in the middle of a road in South Carolina in 2015, according to a lawyer for Smith’s mother.
Smith’s death, and his family’s questions surrounding it, received renewed attention through the prosecution of Alex Murdaugh for the murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul. Smith was a classmate of Murdaugh’s eldest son, Buster.
“I can say there’s a grand jury empaneled and I think substantial progress is being made,” Eric Bland, an attorney representing Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, told Law&Crime. “I have been authorized to say that progress is being made and there’s probably five to six individuals who have material information as to what happened to Stephen.”
Bland said he’s hopeful of an answer about what happened to Smith could come by Labor Day.
“I think that the consensus is that Stephen did die on that road that night and that he didn’t die anywhere else. So that is what the consensus is. The question is what caused his death,” Bland said.
Bland said he’s leaving the determination about Smith’s cause of death to the independent experts hired by Smith’s mother. The experts: forensic pathologists Dr. Michelle DuPre and Dr. Dan Schultz, forensic anthropologist Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney and crime scene expert Dr. Kenny Kinsey.
Stephen Smith’s body was exhumed earlier this year and a second autopsy was performed in Florida. DuPre oversaw that process and told Law&Crime at the time they got what they needed to make a determination. The autopsy results have been shared with South Carolina’s Law Enforcement Division or SLED. The results have not been disclosed publicly.
Mystery has surrounded Smith’s death ever since it came to light that his cause and manner of death were contested in 2015. Investigators with the South Carolina State Highway Patrol questioned the findings of Dr. Erin Presnell, the pathologist who performed Smith’s first autopsy.
Presnell determined Smith died as a result of a hit and run and listed the manner of death as undetermined. State troopers challenged Presnell’s findings, according to case file notes. In April, DuPre told Law&Crime that she believed the first autopsy was thorough and professional.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol released the case file on Smith’s death through Freedom of Information Act requests. Podcasters and reporters wrote stories about the case and the fact that the Murdaugh name was mentioned by some who were interviewed, citing small-town gossip.
Documentaries produced by HBO and Netflix also cited the unfounded rumors regarding Stephen Smith and his high school classmate, Buster Murdaugh. Another Murdaugh tie to the Smith family: Randy Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh’s older brother, represented Stephen Smith’s father in a worker’s compensation claim.
Bland said an attorney for Randy Murdaugh claims that shortly after Smith’s death, the teenager’s now-deceased father and sister reached out to him asking for help with Smith’s death. Buster Murdaugh has vehemently denied any involvement in Smith’s death.
“Right now, I know of no direct connection of any Murdaugh to the murder,” Bland told Law&Crime.
The grand jury will be able to issue subpoenas for records and witnesses to investigate Smith’s death, according to Bland.
Emails and calls sent to spokespeople for SLED and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office were not returned Friday. A spokesperson for SLED had previously told Law&Crime that more resources could be dedicated to Smith’s death following Alex Murdaugh’s conviction for the murders and that progress in Smith’s case was being made.
SLED started its own homicide investigation into Smith’s death as agents investigated the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.
Meanwhile, Bland said Smith’s family, particularly his mother, wanted answers about what happened once and for all.
“Sandy Smith is not looking for an explanation. She’s looking for the explanation. So if the explanation is a hit and run, she’s okay with that,” Bland said. “I think that she is moving towards peace. You know, the woman has not had peace for eight years.”
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