SLED 'cracks' Stephen Smith's cell phone. Rape kit missing in possible hate crime murder
Attorneys representing the family of a slain Hampton County teen say that state police have unlocked some key clues that may help them unravel an eight-year-old murder mystery.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reopened the cold case of Stephen Smith, 19 at the time of his death, and is now combing over key pieces of evidence with fresh eyes and new technological methods — including the young victim's cell phone and iPad tablet, said Eric Bland with the Bland Richter LLP law firm. representing the Smith family.
"SLED has his cell phone and they have cracked it," Bland told The Hampton County Guardian Thursday," and they have the tablet and are working on cracking it."
Meanwhile, other, possibly key pieces of evidence, including a rape kit, remain unaccounted for.
Smith's body was found lying in the middle of Sandy Run Road in rural Hampton County in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, with fatal blunt force trauma to the head and other, secondary injuries.
Originally ruled a vehicular hit-and-run homicide in 2015, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reopened the case in June 2021 and on March 23 of this year, SLED confirmed to the Smith family that it was officially considering the case a murder investigation.
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With the case being eight years old, and passed from one law enforcement agency to another in what the Smith family has criticized as a half-hearted and misguided investigation, technological evidence may be more valuable that any forensic evidence that might still exist.
Attorneys and investigators hope that complete forensic downloads of Smith's devices will tell them who he was talking to, who he was dating, and who he was generally associating with both prior to and during the time of his murder.
"I think the case will be solved by phone evidence or computer evidence, both before and after the killing," said Bland. "We plan on putting a fresh set of eyes on this case as if we were just walking up to the crime scene for the first time."
Bland added that investigators plan on taking a hard look at Smith's communications going back 90 days before his death, and then possibly investigating communications on other people's phones after the killing.
It is unclear how much of a role eight-year-old physical and biological evidence may play in solving Smith's murder, however.
Smith's mother, Sandy, recently launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for a private investigative effort, in addition to SLED's efforts, and to exhume and re-autopsy Smith's body. While it's unclear what Smith's remains may tell forensic experts after so many years, Bland and the Smith family are hopeful. If nothing else, Bland hopes that the exhumation will at least give Smith a proper Certificate of Death.
"Once we get a proper Certificate of Death, then I think Stephen can rest in peace," Bland said, adding that the Smith's private investigative team is "within a week, week and a half" of exhuming Smith's body from its current resting place at Gooding Cemetery in Hampton County.
Investigators still consider this murder a "hate crime" based on Smith's openly gay sexuality, and not a random act of violence. Despite widespread rumors at the time, there is no physical evidence connecting Smith's death to the Murdaugh family of Hampton County, Bland added.
"This was not random, this was not drug or gang-related, the only thing that sets Stephen Smith apart from other 19-year-olds is that he was openly gay in an area of the state where it's not easy to do that in 2015," commented Bland.
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A "rape kit" was taken at the scene in 2015 but, according to Bland, it was never processed and now appears to be unaccounted for. Media outlets over the years have also reported that evidence such as Smith's clothing has also disappeared or been misplaced in the chain of custody transfers from county to state police agencies.
"The rape kit changed hands several times, and I don't know where it's at now," said Bland.
While responding officers originally thought Smith's death was from a gunshot wound, prior to ruling it a vehicular homicide, a gunshot residue test taken at the crime scene revealed no GSR.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Stephen Smith case: SLED 'cracks' cell phone; rape kit still missing