By Dianne Gallagher and Melissa Alonso, CNN
(CNN) – The body of Stephen Smith, whose 2015 death was thrust back into the spotlight during the investigation of the 2021 killings of Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh and her son Paul Murdaugh, was exhumed over the weekend for an independent autopsy, attorneys for Smith’s family said.
Smith’s body was exhumed, transported, and a second autopsy was conducted before "transporting him back and then putting him back to his final resting place this past weekend," attorney Eric Bland said in a tweet Sunday night.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said last month it was investigating Smith’s death as a homicide based on information gleaned in 2021 during its investigation into the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. The agency did not say what that information was, and there has been no connection announced between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family.
“I now believe that Stephen can really rest at ease because SLED and our team are going to do everything possible to find out just how he died,” Bland said.
Smith’s body was discovered lying on a Hampton County road on July 8, 2015 and his death was deemed a hit-and-run in an initial incident report and by a medical examiner’s report. The report cited the cause of death as blunt head trauma sustained from being hit by a vehicle.
But a SLED spokesperson last month confirmed there was no indication in the investigation that was actually the case.
Smith’s family has raised over $100,000 to put towards the exhumation and a private autopsy in what his mother described on a GoFundMe page as a "fight for justice."
The scene where Smith’s body was found
Early in the morning of July 8, 2015, a motorist discovered Smith’s body in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County and reported it to authorities, according to the case file from the South Carolina Highway Patrol’s Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, or MAIT.
Smith had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, an officer noted in the initial incident report. But, while his body was in the road – lying on the center line of the roadway, diagrams of the scene show – the officer saw no evidence of a vehicle accident.
The responding officer noted there was “no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle.”
Smith’s shoes were also both on and loosely tied, the report added, and investigators saw no evidence suggesting he was struck by a vehicle.
In an interview described in the case file, Smith’s family said he would have never been walking in the middle of the roadway, where his body was found, adding he was “very skittish.”
His vehicle was found about three miles away, that report said, with the gas tank door open and the gas cap hanging out on the side of the car. The vehicle’s battery was functional, but the car wouldn’t start, the report added.
Wound to Smith’s head
The case file reveals a working theory among first responders at the scene that Smith’s death was a homicide – and not the result of being struck by a car.
One State Highway Patrol trooper, Thomas Moore, wrote in his notes that when he arrived on scene, the county coroner “immediately advised me it was a homicide,” and pointed to a wound on Smith’s head the coroner believed to be a gunshot wound. Separate reports show two other responders – an EMS worker and a sheriff’s deputy – also believed Smith’s head wound was from a gunshot.
Notably, the report indicates SLED agents disagreed the head injury was a bullet wound, and no bullet casings were found.
At the time, Smith’s family was given several different theories, his mother told CNN. First, she said, they were told it was a gunshot. Then a beating. Then, she said, a hit-and-run.
The determination Smith died of a hit-and-run appears to be one investigators questioned at the time. At least two challenged the pathologist who performed the autopsy about her determination, and their notes indicate the county coroner disagreed with the finding.
In June 2021, SLED announced it was opening the investigation into Smith’s death based on information learned while probing the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh earlier that month.
That murder investigation eventually led to the trial of patriarch Alex Murdaugh, who was found guilty last month and sentenced to life in prison for killing Maggie and Paul on the night of June 7, 2021. Murdaugh has appealed his convictions.
The case file from the initial South Carolina Highway Patrol investigation into Smith’s death – released by the patrol to CNN – shows the Murdaugh name was mentioned dozens of times by both witnesses and investigators, including the name of Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster.
In one audio recording of a witness interview, then-Trooper Todd Proctor is heard saying, “Buster was on our radar. ... The Murdaughs know that.” But why he was on investigators’ radar is unclear. Neither Buster Murdaugh nor anyone else has been charged in the case.
Buster Murdaugh, a former classmate of Smith’s, released a statement last month denying any involvement in Smith’s death and requested the media "immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me."
“This has gone on far too long,” his statement said. “These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.”
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