How Buster Murdaugh’s Lawsuit May Be the Key to Solving a Murder Mystery

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

The alleged involvement of Alex Murdaugh’s only surviving son in the 2015 roadside murder of his former classmate has long been a lingering question mark over the infamous family’s tangled web of legal woes.

This week, Buster Murdaugh finally fired back, filing a damning defamation lawsuit against Netflix and others who produced documentaries and news articles that, he says, “irreparably damaged” his reputation by insinuating he was involved in 19-year-old Stephen Smith’s death. But his decision to sue the companies he says accused him of “committing a crime of moral turpitude” may also be the key to figuring out what happened in the still-unsolved criminal case.

“He is reigniting embers that were almost extinct, adding oxygen to it in terms of public interest,” Eric Bland, a lawyer representing the Smith family, told The Daily Beast. “Now, these media companies are going to fight tooth and nail to get new content. They want another season and Buster just handed it to them.”

Bland believes that Buster’s decision to use the legal system to clear his name may finally yield answers for the Smiths—and “backfire” on Murdaugh and his family.

Lawyer: Buster Murdaugh’s Defamation Lawsuit Will Blow Up in His Face

Despite the national interest in Smith’s death, Bland said that the family had not gotten “any new information” from state officials. That means all eyes will be focused on what the eight defendants in Buster’s suit can reveal in their discovery requests for phone records, depositions, cellphone geolocation, and other data that may normally be kept secret during a criminal investigation.

He noted that, unlike in a criminal case, the defendants may also call other members of the Murdaugh family in for depositions, including Buster’s uncle Randy, who reportedly called the Smith family shortly after they learned the news about Stephen’s death. Since this is a civil case, the defendants have the power to control discovery to prove they did not willfully mean to defame Buster—a process Bland said could subject Buster to questions he may not want to answer about the Smith case and other swirling cases involving the powerful family.

“If someone accused me of murder, I would fight. It’s a slight against your character, and character matters. But he is opening a can of whoop ass here,” Bland added.

Smith, a nursing student, was found dead on a backcountry road in Hampton, South Carolina—miles from the Murdaugh’s family hunting estate. While authorities immediately deemed the death suspicious, a medical examiner at the time concluded he was the victim of a hit-and-run and no one was ever charged.

The case, however, was reopened in June 2021 after authorities gathered information while investigating another grisly murder: the double homicide of Alex Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, at the family’s estate. Since then, authorities have reportedly ruled Smith’s death an “intentional killing” and his body was exhumed for an independent autopsy.

Buster Murdaugh Opens Up on ‘Odd’ Thing During Dad’s Trial

The lawsuit filed Monday targets three documentaries that hinted at Buster’s alleged involvement in Smith’s case plus a local newspaper, The Hampton County Guardian, and its editor Michael DeWitt Jr. (Pilar Melendez of The Daily Beast appears in one of the docs, Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty.)

Netflix’s documentary series depicted “a young man with red hair carrying a baseball bat” during a re-enactment of Smith’s murder—which the lawsuit alleges mirrors Buster’s appearance. “The false statements were published to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers who watched the show,” the lawsuit says.

While the documentaries hinted at Buster’s possible involvement and detailed how authorities pursued several tips about the Murdaugh family’s possible connection, nobody in the family was charged. Buster’s suit says he “has not been notified by any law enforcement entities of any allegations against him related to Stephen Smith’s death.”

The Smith family and their legal team have also previously said they have “no knowledge or reason to believe that any member of the Murdaugh family was involved in Stephen’s death.”

“By filing a defamation lawsuit, Buster has opened himself up to having the other side asking as many questions as they deem relevant to those exact allegations,” South Carolina defense attorney Dayne Phillips, who is not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast. “It also means that interesting information found through discovery that the public does not know may finally be revealed.”

Phillips, however, believes Buster is fully aware of the risks in filing the lawsuit—and believes there must be evidence in the criminal investigation that supports the decision not to charge him. Since this civil case will run up against the ongoing criminal investigation, Phillips noted that defendants are not “starting from square one” and will probably get access to at least some of SLED’s investigation.

“Law enforcement, however, does not have to comply because it is an ongoing investigation,” Phillips, who knows Buster’s attorney personally and described him as a “very skilled litigator,” added. “But anything that is uncovered in a civil litigation can be used in a criminal investigation, that happens all the time. So I am sure SLED is keeping a close eye on this civil case, where the standards are different and additional information could be uncovered.”

Trooper Who Probed Death Near Murdaugh Estate Shares Shady New Details

The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) told The Daily Beast this week that Smith’s murder investigation “is active and ongoing” and “no further details are available at this time.”

The suit will “be good for everyone because everyone has questions about this very topic,” Phillips said. “This helps make sure the truth is revealed.”

For Smith’s mother, the lawsuit will only help her unwavering quest to figure out what happened to her teenage son nine years ago.

“For Sandy Smith, this is an opportunity to figure out what happened and get more information about Stephen. All she wants is peace of mind—to figure out how Stephen died and why,” Bland added. “Because when you get under oath, you gotta talk. And we want answers.”

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