Stephen Smith's Death Ruled a Homicide Nearly 8 Years After He Was Found Near Alex Murdaugh's Home

Police in South Carolina initially said Stephen Smith died of a hit-and-run after his body was found a short distance from the Murdaugh estate on the morning of July 8, 2015

Authorities in South Carolina have determined that Stephen Smith — whose body was found near the Murdaugh home in the summer of 2015 — has died of a homicide.

Police had initially said Smith died of "highway vehicular manslaughter," the Bland Richter Law Firm, who is representing Smith's mother as of this week, said in a press release on Tuesday. Lawyers said the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division's (SLED) Chief Mark Keel disclosed the information during a phone call.

"We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that," said attorney Eric Bland.

Smith was found dead on a South Carolina road in 2015, according to the release, "and questions were raised about his death during the investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh in 2021."

Alex Murdaugh was convicted of his wife and son's deaths earlier this month and handed two life sentences. While investigating their murders, authorities found new evidence connected to Smith's death and reopened his case in June 2021.

Smith's mom Sandy Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign last week hoping to raise money to exhume his body for an independent autopsy to prove that he did not die of a hit-and-run.

"State police first said that Stephen Smith had car trouble, was walking for help, and got hit by a car," the law firm said. "Smith's family believes he was murdered, and wants an unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts."

Stephen Smith facebook no credit
Stephen Smith. Facebook

The GoFundMe has raised nearly $85,000 as of Tuesday evening.

"SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith's body to convince them that his death was a homicide. However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen's body to gather more evidence. We are committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves" said Bland and Ronnie Richter in a joint statement.

The law firm added that during its phone call with SLED, the police agency revealed they wanted to wait until after Murdaugh's trial to announce that they were ruling Smith's death a homicide "out of concern that witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence."

Now that the disgraced lawyer's trial is over, Bland Richter Law Firm said more "resources have been devoted and will be devoted to Smith's case."

Richter added that SLED is publicly backing Smith's mom Sandy in her "efforts to find out what really happened to her son. They have expressed their condolences to the Smith family and will continue to work diligently to bring those responsible for Stephen's death to justice. We are proud to be their partner in finding justice."

SLED did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

RELATED VIDEO: S.C. Teen Died Mysteriously in 2015. His Case Was Reopened When Investigators Looked into Murdaugh Murders

Smith, a 19-year-old nursing student from Hampton, South Carolina, was found dead in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015. He was discovered lying in the middle of a dark country road — 3 miles away from where his car had run out of gas — with deep gashes on his forehead, several local news outlets reported. Authorities initially thought Smith had been shot, but his death has later ruled a hit-and-run — a claim that his mother has disputed all along.

"Stephen never would have been walking in the middle of the roadway," the family told investigators, saying he was "skittish," per CNN.

Sandy later reiterated the same point to the Hampton County Guardian. "I just don't believe my son would have been walking in the middle of the road like that," she said.

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Smith's case was initially investigated by the South Carolina Highway Patrol before going cold in 2016, according to FITSNews. In that investigation, the Murdaugh name — a powerful local family known for their longstanding law firm — was mentioned dozens of times as possibly being connected to Smith's death, FITSnews reported. However, no member of the Murdaugh family was ever questioned in his death and no charges were ever filed.

But in June 2021, nearly six years after Smith was found dead, South Carolina's top law enforcement agency announced that they were opening an investigation into his death. SLED revealed in a statement that the investigation was launched "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh." However, SLED did not specify what information had led them to open the investigation.

On Monday, Buster Murdaugh, Alex's only surviving son, vehemently denied he had anything to do with the mysterious death.

"I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith's tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother," Buster, 27, said in a statement on Monday released through his attorney, Jim Griffin.

"I love them so much and miss them terribly," he wrote.

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