'We're going to beat up the gay kid': Teen killed near Murdaugh estate was hate crime victim, lawyer says

Stephen Smith was found found dead on July 8, 2015, on a dark road in Hampton County, S.C., three miles away from his vehicle and near the Murdaugh family estate. In the wake of his death being recently ruled a homicide, his family's lawyer is giving his theory on what led to Smith's death, PEOPLE Magazine reported.

"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," Eric Bland told 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."

"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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Buster Murdaugh, who is the surviving son of convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh, and Smith were high school classmates. As PEOPLE points out, authorities haven't accused the Murdaugh family or Buster Murdaugh of being connected to the killing, nor have they ruled the killing a hate crime.

Alex Murdaugh, scion of an elite family of judges and attorneys, was convicted and sentenced earlier this month in a televised three-week trial that captivated viewers nationwide and outside the country.

Despite the lack of concrete evidence like a murder weapon or DNA showing he shot his son Paul and wife Maggie at their sprawling hunting estate on June 7, 2021, it took a jury only a few hours to convict him.

Evidence from his son's cell phone indicated Murdaugh, 54, was the only person with them at the estate's hunting dog kennels several minutes before Maggie was killed with an assault rifle and Paul with a shotgun.

One day after the jury ruled, the judge sentenced Murdaugh to two consecutive life sentences, without parole.

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Just ahead of the sentencing, the lanky, red-headed attorney who made a fortune suing companies but also stole millions from his law firm to feed a huge opioid habit, denied he killed them.

"I'm innocent. I would never hurt my wife Maggie. And I would never hurt my son Paw Paw," he said, using his son's nickname.

"It might not have been you," the judge responded. "It might have been the monster you become when you take 15, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 opioid pills."

The twists and turns of the case focused on a family which the judge said "controlled justice" in the South Carolina coastal lowlands for generations.

The trial delved deeply into the culture of hunting wild pigs and other wildlife in the area, Murdaugh's admitted theft of huge sums from clients including poor families, and raised questions about two other deaths possibly tied to the Murdaugh family.

Even before the trial finished, Netflix and HBO rushed out docu-dramas on the case.

With additional reporting by AFP