HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. — The mother of Stephen Smith said on Monday that, in petitioning to have his body exhumed, she hopes to fight for her son now because she couldn’t protect him those many years ago.
Nineteen-year-old Smith was found dead along a rural South Carolina road on July 8, 2015. And while the case was classified as a hit-and-run then, Sandy Smith and her attorneys, Eric Bland and Ronald Richter, said in a Monday press conference that they intend to gather more information that they believe will show this was not the case.
Bland said that they intend to “start over” and hire experts who will not only examine Smith’s remains but also professionals who can re-examine the scene and, utilizing modern technology, determine who Smith had spoken to in the days leading up to his death.
“What we intend to do is look at his life 90 days before July 8, 2015, look at who he was associating with,” Bland said. “Who were his friends? What kind of communications did he have? What were his plans?”
He said one way of obtaining information would be to file a civil suit to look at the cause of death which would give them subpoena power and discovery rights under South Carolina law. But he said that would be a decision “down the road.”
The attorneys contended on Monday that injuries and circumstances surrounding Smith’s death don’t add up to a hit-and-run and that they believe he died somewhere else. Among the evidence described were Smith’s loose shoes that were still on his feet rather than being knocked off and the lack of debris at the scene.
Smith’s car was also found on a road roughly three miles away and, according to the attorneys, was believed to have run out of gas at the time. However, they said his wallet was still in the vehicle. His mother added that there were quicker ways to return home that didn’t involve walking along a country road – shortcuts that Smith knew and would have used.
The attorneys said they felt there is compelling evidence to suggest that the hit-and-run findings of the original investigation are in need of review. However, a major part of their current plans will hinge on the decision of a judge on their petition to exhume Smith’s body.
Bland explained that the deceased still have rights, and a judge will have to decide if Smith’s mother and her representatives have a legitimate interest in exhuming him.
“We’re going to have to petition the court, show facts that would indicate that a fresh set of eyes, a new autopsy may yield a different conclusion that Stephen was not killed on Sandy Run Road in Bamberg County, that maybe he was killed somewhere else,” he said.
He does hope to have something filed with the courts within a week to 10 days.
One of the biggest questions they hope to answer is whether his injuries were consistent with being struck by a vehicle.
Bland said that, if granted, the process will be conducted respectfully and with as minimal of an impact on Smith’s body as possible. If not, they still intend to follow Smith’s digital trail to find others who might have information and have experts re-examine the investigative findings.
As to what digital data they want, Richter said that they hope to gather as much as possible in hopes that something will provide another piece to the investigation.
Whatever comes of the findings in their investigation, the attorneys pledged that they would be publicizing the information and hope to have open hearings – though the latter would be up to a judge.
“As we know things in this investigation, so will you,” Richter said.
They also intend to share the findings with other investigative authorities looking into the case, including the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) which reopened the investigation in 2021.
“Even though it may not be a full two-way street, the more information that we can put on SLED’s desk, or the A.G.’s desk, that we may acquire – and that’s the word 'may' acquire – I think will be beneficial.”
Bland also pointed out that Creighton Waters, who prosecuted the Alex Murdaugh case, was open to information he provided or passed along from the general public.
“He was receptive to every piece of information that the public wanted to give him that I received,” Bland said. “I know he read it. Some he would say, ‘I disagree with,’ and some, as the trial progressed, I knew that he used.”
He did add that a grand jury has already been impaneled in Smith’s death and that silence in the intervening days either means that they returned an indictment and it hasn’t been released, which he doubts, or that there wasn’t enough information gathered over the last two years to indict.
“Remember, this investigation opened up, according to SLED, based upon a finding of something during the investigation of Alex’s murder of Maggie and Paul,” Bland said. “We don’t know what that is, we don’t know what caused it.”
That’s why Richter added that part of Monday’s press conference was a call to the public to come forward with information on the case as new details could be vital.
“We need your help, it’s going to be essential to this investigation that people talk,” he said.
Bland added that no detail is too small and even innocuous facts that may seem unimportant may prove vital when combined with other details.
He also thanked two people who have covered this case for years for their work in pressing for answers in Smith’s death and keeping it in the public consciousness.
“There’s no Bland-Richter on the scene unless there was Mandy Matney and Liz Farrell,” he said.
Matney spoke on the call, agreeing that the next steps in the investigation are heavily dependent on the voices of the community.
“After digging into this investigation for four years, I firmly believe that there are many people in Hampton County, South Carolina, right now, who know what exactly happened to Stephen,” she said. “And they need to know that this is not going away.”
Information can be shared at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 803-600-7476.