Plans to exhume the body of a 19-year-old killed near the Murdaugh family’s South Carolina home have given his mother hope that a new autopsy will solve the mystery of his death.

Stephen Smith died in July 2015, but his mother, Sandy, has long contested the official cause of death, a hit-and-run, and has claimed he was murdered.

After the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh, for which husband and father Alex was convicted on March 3, the investigation into his death was reopened in 2021.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division stated that they began investigating the case “based on information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation,” but provided no further details.

Sandy stated that she would “immediately pursue the exhumation” after raising $40,000 through a GoFundMe page to pay for an independent exhumation and autopsy.

“While the state can choose and fund an exhumation and new autopsy, it is our understanding that it will be performed at [the Medical University of South Carolina], where his death was initially classified as a hit-and-run despite no evidence to support it,” she wrote on the page at the time.

Stephen Smith posing for a selfie in this undated photo.

However, the exhumation, which must first be approved by a judge, is only the beginning of a lengthy process that will involve re-examining how Smith’s body was handled during the initial investigation seven years ago, according to longtime leading forensics expert Joseph Scott Morgan.

Stephen was discovered in the middle of the road, three miles from his car, with a large wound to the right side of his forehead.

According to police reports, he also had a dislocated shoulder and cuts on his left hand.

The death “appeared to be a homicide,” according to police, but an autopsy performed the same day he was discovered dead determined he was the victim of a hit-and-run.

Morgan told The Washington Post that how the body was handled in the critical hours after it was discovered made all the difference.

“There’s so much you can overlook,” he said over the phone. “That’s why, especially in traumatic deaths, we treat all deaths as homicides until proven otherwise.”

He also speculated that whether Smith’s body was properly embalmed could have played a role.

Morgan, who co-hosts the true crime podcast “Body Bags,” also questioned whether investigators performed X-rays on Smith’s body before burial, as well as the ability to reexamine Smith’s clothes from the night of his death, emphasizing the significance of both.

“Did they take any X-rays of his body?” he inquired. “If they did, perhaps they could go back and compare those films to what they have now. Maybe they’ll go in and find something else that would have gone unnoticed.”

When asked about the possibility of foreign DNA, Morgan stated that any molecular evidence would be “out the door” the moment funeral personnel cleaned Smith’s body.

Morgan went on to say that the process of conducting an autopsy on an exhumed body is complicated further by environmental factors such as the possible presence of bugs or water in the underground environment.

“A lot of people think they just dig a hole and put a casket in it,” he said of burials. “That’s not how it works.”

A screenshot of the GoFundMe page created to raise money for Stephen Smith’s exhumation.

The casket is then sealed in concrete, creating “a box within a box,” according to Morgan.

However, if water can get in, “problems arise,” he says.

“That’s one of the things they’ll be fighting – the elements related to this, we’re talking about seven years of rain and drought and all of these different things that impact the area,” he explained.

The quality of the casket can affect how well the body is protected.

“There will still be insects that get in there and damage the body,” he said. “Then there are things like mold.”

Nonetheless, investigators will be able to thoroughly examine Smith’s remains, according to Morgan.

“They’re going to have to do full-body X-rays and look at every – from head to toe – every element involved, and look for any trauma that might be indwelling, in the most insignificant sense of that word,” he said.

According to The Associated Press, the initial coroner’s report determined Stephen suffered a head injury when he was struck by a semitruck’s mirror as the vehicle passed.

Police initially thought he was walking up the road because his car had run out of gas.

In a statement to The Post, an SLED spokesperson stated that they have “made progress in the death investigation of Stephen Smith, but this investigation remains active and ongoing.”

Murdaugh was once regarded as a prominent figure in South Carolina politics before the murders of Maggie and Paul exposed a tangled web of financial crimes and allegations of cover-ups dating back years.

Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to two life terms in prison for the murders of his wife and son.

According to FITSnews, the Murdaugh family’s name was mentioned “more than 40 times throughout the course of the investigation,” despite the fact that no member of the family was ever formally questioned by police.

According to the same website, local rumors circulated that Alex’s surviving son, Buster, was somehow involved in his father’s death, but this was never mentioned in police reports.

Police have never named Buster as a suspect in the incident or charged him with any crime.

Morgan told The Washington Post on Friday that investigators reexamining Smith’s remains should “collect everything that you possibly can 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?”

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