Lawyer Believes Stephen Smith's Killing Was Hate Crime: 'Hey, We're Going to Beat Up a Gay Kid'

Stephen Smith's 2015 death was recently ruled a homicide

Stephen Smith and his mother Sandy
Stephen Smith and his mother, Sandy. Photo: Justice for Stephen N. Smith Family Page/Facebook

Now that Stephen Smith's mysterious 2015 death has officially been ruled a homicide, his family's lawyer is speaking out on what he believes may have led to the 19-year-old's killing.

While speaking with PEOPLE, Eric Bland, the attorney representing the Smith family, said he believes Smith's death seems like a hate crime.

"When you start going down the possibility that it was a hate crime and they took a rape kit, this is an openly gay 19-year-old kid," Bland tells PEOPLE. "And this isn't in New York City or California or Washington D.C., Philadelphia. It's in the Lowcountry, South Carolina, where being openly gay in 2015 probably is not the most popular thing to be."

South Carolina authorities have never said Smith's death was a hate crime and no suspects have been named at this time. But last week, authorities officially ruled Smith's death a homicide for the first time.

"I think it was a hate crime," Bland said. "Meaning that it could be that a bunch of thug kids decide, 'Hey, we're going to beat up the gay kid,' or it was somebody who felt that Stephen was going to out them in their relationship or was uncomfortable with Stephen in their friendship."

"I think that's what we're going to find, because Stephen had told his mother that he was dating somebody of prominence," Bland continued. "He was very secretive about his lifestyle. He wasn't secretive about the fact that he was gay, but he respected the boundaries of people who he had relationships with."

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Smith was found dead in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015 on a dark road in Hampton County, S.C., three miles away from his vehicle and near the Murdaugh family estate — a powerful local family known for their longstanding law firm. Smith's death was initially ruled a hit-and-run accident and no arrests were ever made.

It was reported that Smith ran out of gas and was walking in the street when he was hit, but Bland says he does not believe this is true.

"He definitely didn't run out of gas," Bland said.

When asked if he believes Smith was killed elsewhere and his car was placed at the location at where authorities found it, Bland responded, "I do."

During the investigation after Smith's death, the Murdaugh name was mentioned dozens of times as possibly being connected to the death, FITSnews reported. Buster Murdaugh — the surviving son of convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh — and Smith were high school classmates.

However, authorities have never accused the Murdaugh family or Buster Murdaugh of being connected to the killing. On Monday, Buster vehemently denied that he had anything to do with Smith's untimely death.

Bland confirmed to PEOPLE that a rape kit was administered after Smith's death, but was never tested.

Cpl. Michael Duncan, the former supervisor of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, also told NewsNation's Ashleigh Banfield that a rape kit was conducted on Smith — representing the first time in Duncan's career that a rape kit was ordered in connection with a traffic incident.

"I did not have an understanding of why it was being ordered," Duncan told Banfield.

Smith's family has now raised enough money to exhume his body for an independent autopsy as the investigation into his death continues.

"The family of Stephen N. Smith is incredibly grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have received from Standing for Stephen and the community as a whole," Smith's mother, Sandy Smith, wrote in the GoFundMe's description. "You have been monumental in shining light on Stephen's story and the lack of justice."

In an update, Sandy said they will "pursue the exhumation immediately" and will update the public on any findings.

"You have made this possible, and it means the world to us," The update continues. "This is Stephen's year."

* With reporting by Christine Pelisek

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