July 15, 2024
Reversal of Stephen Smith death ruling is rare, attorney says

(NewsNation) — Stephen Smith’s mother has been fighting for more answers in her son’s death ever since South Carolina authorities discovered his body in the middle of a road in 2015 and ruled his death a hit-and-run.

An attorney representing Stephen’s family announced Tuesday that the state no longer believes Stephen was killed in a hit-and-run accident and reversed its ruling to homicide.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” the teen’s mother, Sandy Smith, told NewsNation’s Chris Cuomo.

While officials initially determined Stephen Smith was the victim of a hit-and-run in July 2015, his family doubted that ruling from the start. Police said he was walking along the road after running out of gas, but investigators found no skid marks or car debris, and the 19-year-old’s loosely tied shoes were still on his feet, attorneys have said.

Smith family attorney Eric Bland explained it is extremely rare for the state to reverse its original rulings.

“But yesterday was a really big day,” Bland said. “I cannot emphasize, you know, the state usually does not reverse itself. And, you know, call a private attorney on the phone and tell them, ‘hey, this is our position going forward.’”

But Bland made a point of emphasizing Sandy’s persistence to fight for her son.

“This woman, by herself — you know, she’s a hard-working woman, works in a school, doesn’t even have internet — was championing this by herself. And kept saying, ‘No, this is not how my son died.’ And this is what we want from our parents, right? In our society, parents have to fight for their children. So we don’t want Stephen to die in vain,” Bland said.

Sandy Smith said he believed his son was beaten to death. Investigators have no evidence at the moment connecting anyone to his death. Still, previous interactions with the Murdaugh family created unfounded rumors that the Murdaughs may have had a connection to Stephen Smith’s death, despite having no evidence of a connection.

Alex Murdaugh’s son Buster was a classmate of Stephen Smith’s, and some questioned whether the younger Murdaugh was involved in Smith’s death. But Buster Murdaugh has since released a statement adamantly denying any involvement in the death.

Bland said he didn’t know why Buster Murdaugh’s name was even being mentioned in relation to the Smith case, saying he had no knowledge of any relationship or connection between them other than they knew each other and were classmates.

“But there is, to my knowledge, no connection right now between Buster and this murder,” Bland said.

The attorney said, if anything, Buster Murdaugh’s name being mentioned has helped expedite reopening the investigation into Smith’s death.

“Something must have come up during the investigation having to deal with Alex Murdaugh and killing the wife and his son, because according to law enforcement … based on that investigation, some information came up having to deal with the death of Stephen Smith,” criminal defense attorney and former senior homicide prosecutor Bernarda Villalona said. “We don’t know what it is. But what we do know, the game changer, is that this is ruled a homicide, and now law enforcement will be involved in investigating to find out who is responsible for killing Stephen Smith.”

Villalona said she was sure whoever was responsible for Smith’s death was probably shaking, or nervous, because they thought the books were closed on this investigation.

The state even contacted the Smith family attorneys and pledged its full backing in the investigation.

“The state said that they would partner with us to attend to any type of vaccination that we did and subsequent forensic analysis of Stephen’s body and that we would have a cooperative work-sharing agreement,” Bland said.

However, it isn’t certain what the status of Smith’s body will be, especially since he’s been buried for eight years.

Villalona said it’s possible that the investigation won’t lead to any answers as to what happened to Stephen, but with new technologies, she is hopeful that investigators will be able to learn more about the case.

“The phone of Stephen Smith was preserved in a sense that they can do an investigation on the phone, they can do a follow-up, find out where he was the last minutes before he was killed. … (There are) so many questions that are unanswered because it was ruled by an accident and not a homicide, and now you have the resources of law enforcement to be able to carry out those investigations,” he said.