Investigative Findings Relating to Stephen Smith’s Autopsy
An investigation into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith was reopened in 2021 following the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. In the early morning of July 8th, 2015, Stephen Smith was discovered dead in the middle of a dark country road, roughly 3 miles away from where his car had run out of gas, with deep gashes on his forehead. When Smith was discovered, local authorities initially thought Smith had been shot, but his death was later ruled a hit-and-run. Smith’s case was initially investigated by the South Carolina Highway Patrol. In that investigation, the Murdaugh’s were mentioned dozens of times as possibly being connected to Smith’s death. However, no member of the Murdaugh family was ever questioned in Smith’s death and no charges were ever filed.
In June 2021, South Carolina’s top law enforcement agency, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), announced that they were opening an investigation into Smith’s 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” (Michael M. DeWitt, 2021). However, SLED did not specifically state what information had led them to open the investigation. On March 21, 2023, SLED officially ruled Smith’s death as a homicide.
Smith’s body was exhumed in April 2023, and a second autopsy was being conducted with several forensic experts were present. Dr. Kenneth Kinsey is qualified as an expert in the South Carolina Courts of General Sessions and the United States District Courts in blood stain pattern examination, crime scene investigation, crime scene reconstruction, fabric impression examination, fingerprint examination, tire tread and footwear examination. Dr. Michelle DuPre is an expert witness, a retired forensic pathologist, a former law enforcement officer, and a professor at the University of West Indies in the Master of Science Programme in Forensic Science. On April 4, 2023, the second autopsy was declared “a success, they say they did collect evidence, it was very good documentation, and everybody was upbeat about the information that was collected. … And that’s not always the situation when you exhume someone after so many years” (Livesay, 2023).
In the podcast True Crime Today, Tony Brueski and Scott Roder discuss the forensic evidence from the two autopsies that were conducted for Smith. The Hampton County coroner, Dr. Ernie Washington, determined at the scene that Smith had been shot. The Sherriff and the first responder on the scene both indicated in their initial reports that there was no debris from any kind of automobile accident. When the first official autopsy was performed, by Dr. Erin Presnell, the manner of death was declared as a hit-and-run car accident based upon information possibly provided to her. The coroner at the scene, the sheriff, and the first responders all stated that it appeared as the manner of death was gunshot wound, but only when the first official autopsy took place is when it was ruled to be hit-and-run.
During the podcast, Brueski asked how often do conflicting reports, like the manner of death for Smith from two different experts, happen? Roder explains that there can be conflicting reports, but often they are due to there being disagreements as to how interpret the same facts, but usually it’s aspects of angles and placements. However, it is not very common for two medical examiners to come to different determinations of the manner of death. The disconnect between the doctors’ manner of death findings is very rare. The follow-up question Brueski asks to this, is how can you determine a gunshot wound to the head versus an impact wound? Roder has experience in investigating shootings and car accidents, so he is able to discuss how the two crime scenes would appear differently. If an individual’s manner of death is caused by a gunshot wound, then the individual will have a gunshot radius of the impact zone, but this zone size is determined by what type of gun was used in the shooting. For car accidents, people can receive large head trauma. On a past case Roder investigated in Georgia, a victim was hit on a dark road by accident by a car going 35 mph. The victim of that case received a massive fracture on the back of his head, his leg was amputated during impact, his shoes were launched 50 feet away from the scene, his pants thrown off of his body, and he received massive road rash burns on his body.
Roder noted that it would be vital for the investigation team to review the notes of the coroners, sheriffs, and police officers, as well as view the photographs from the crime scene and the autopsy. From the experience that Roder has he is able to state that this was a homicide and not a hit-and-run. When the independent private examiner conducts the investigation, it will be important for them to have a clear mind, so they are able to view that injury for what it is and not be predisposed to view it as a specific type of case. The investigators on the case could do several experiments for recreating the crime scene, such as using dummy heads to recreate a shooting scene as well as a car accident. These experiments can be recreated by using several variables such as distance, the gun type, the bullet type, car speed and any others that could be relevant to the reconstruction of the crime scene.
By: Megan Frate
April 14, 2023
Brueski, T., & Roder, S. (2023, April 13). True crime today: A true crime podcast: Shocking inconsistencies: Scott Roder dismantles autopsy findings in Stephen Smith investigation #roderrevealstruth on Apple Podcasts. Apple Podcasts. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/shocking-inconsistencies-scott-roder-dismantles-autopsy/id1504280230?i=1000608770763
Kennedy, D. (2023, March 27). Murdaugh-linked Stephen Smith was killed for knowing too much about ‘bad people’: Forensics investigator. New York Post. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://nypost.com/2023/03/27/stephen-smith-was-killed-for-knowing-too-much-about-bad-people-forensics-investigator/
Livesay, B. (2023, April 3). Stephen Smith’s body exhumed and given second autopsy, says attorney. Peoplemag. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://people.com/crime/stephen-smiths-body-exhumed-given-second-autopsy-says-attorney/
Livesay, B. (2023, April 5). Stephen Smith’s 2nd autopsy yields new ‘evidence,’ declared a ‘success’. Peoplemag. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://people.com/crime/stephen-smith-autopsy-evidence-declared-success/
Michael M. DeWitt, J. (2021, June 23). Sled opens its own investigation into death of Stephen Smith; possible murdaugh connection. Bluffton Today. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://www.blufftontoday.com/story/news/local/hampton-county-guardian/2021/06/23/sled-opens-own-investigation-into-death-stephen-smith-maggie-paul-murdaugh-homicide-connection/5322059001/