Plans to exhume the body of a 19-year-old killed near the Murdaugh family residence in South Carolina have given his mom hope a new autopsy will solve his mystery death.
Stephen Smith died in July 2015, but his mother Sandy has long disputed the official recorded cause of death, a hit-and-run, and claimed he was murdered.
The investigation into his death was revisited in 2021 after the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh – for which husband and father Alex was convicted on March 3.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said they began probing the case “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation,” but have not elaborated further.
Sandy said she would “pursue the exhumation immediately” after raising $40,000 via a GoFundMe page to pay for an independent exhumation and autopsy.
“While the state can elect and fund an exhumation and new autopsy, it is our understanding that it would be carried out at [the Medical University of South Carolina], where his death was initially classified as hit-and-run despite no evidence to support it,” she wrote on the page at the time.
But the exhumation – which must first get the green-light from a judge – is only the beginning of a thorough process that involves re-examining how Smith’s body was handled during the initial investigation over seven years ago, said longtime leading forensics expert Joseph Scott Morgan.
Stephen was found with a large wound to the right side of his forehead in the middle of the road, three miles away from his car.
He also had a dislocated shoulder and cuts to his left hand, according to police reports.
Police initially stated the death “appeared to be a homicide,” but an autopsy performed the same day he was found dead ruled he had been the victim of a hit-and-run.
How the body was handled in the crucial hours after being found makes all the difference, Morgan told The Post.
“There’s so much you can miss,” he said, when reached by phone. “That’s why we treat all deaths as if they’re a homicide until they’re proven otherwise, particularly traumatic deaths.”
Whether Smith’s body was sufficiently embalmed could play a role too, he said.
Morgan, who co-hosts a true crime podcast called “Body Bags,” also questioned whether investigators performed X-rays on Smith’s body prior to his burial, and the ability to reexamine Smith’s clothes from the night of his death, and emphasized the importance of both.
“Did they do any kind of X-rays of his body?” he asked. “If they did, maybe that’s something they could go back, and review those films that they did, compared to what they have now. Maybe they’ll go in and discover something else that otherwise might not have been picked up.”
Asked about the possible presence of foreign DNA, Morgan said any molecular evidence would be “out the door” from the moment funeral staff cleaned Smith’s body.
The process of conducting an autopsy examination on an exhumed body is further complicated by environmental factors, such as the possible presence of bugs or water in the underground environment, Morgan went on.
“A lot of people think they just dig a hole and put a casket in,” he said, speaking about a burial. “That’s not how it happens.”
A casket is then sealed in concrete, essentially making it “a box within a box,” Morgan added.
But “problems arise” if water is able to make its way in, he added.
“That’s one of the things they’re going to be fighting – the elements relative to this, we’re talking about seven years of rain and drought and all of these different things that impact the area,” he said.
The quality of the casket can impact how protected the body will be.
“There are still insects that will get in there, they’ll damage the body,” he said. “Then you can have things like mold.”
Nonetheless, Morgan added, investigators will still be able to thoroughly examine Smith’s remains.
“They’re going to have to do full-body X-rays, and look at every – from head to toe – every element involved,” he said, “and look for any trauma that might be indwelling, in the most miniscule sense of that word.”
The initial coroner’s report determined Stephen suffered a head injury when he was struck by a semitruck’s mirror as the vehicle passed, The Associated Press reported.
Police reportedly believed he was walking up the road because his car had run out of gas at the time.
However, an SLED spokesperson said in a statement to The Post they have “made progress in the death investigation of Stephen Smith, however this investigation remains active and ongoing.”
Murdaugh was once considered a leading name in South Carolina politics before the murders of Maggie and Paul unraveled a tangled web of financial crimes, and allegations of cover-ups going back years.
Alex Murdaugh was given two life terms for the murders of his wife and son.
The Murdaugh family has since been alleged to have been involved in at least three other deaths in the community, including Smith’s.
According to local news site FITSnews, the Murdaugh family’s name was brought up “more than 40 times throughout the course of the investigation” although no member of the family was ever formally questioned by the police.
The same site reported that local rumors had circulated that Alex’s surviving son, Buster, had been in some way involved in the death, but this was never included in police notes.
Buster has never been named by police as a suspect in the incident or accused of any crime.
Speaking to The Post on Friday, Morgan said investigators re-examining Smith’s remains should “collect everything that you possibly can collect before they return his mortal remains to the ground.”
“You’ve already gone to all of the trouble to have the body exhumed,” he went on. “Why not put on full court press, do everything that you can possibly do?”
With Olivia Land