Magistrate says ‘mere presence’ doesn’t imply guilt, tosses case against baby sitter
A magistrate tossed out a homicide charge against an 18-year-old baby sitter Thursday, ruling that her “mere presence” when a North Charleston toddler’s condition took a grave turn was not enough to justify her arrest.
Solicitors will discuss whether to pursue an indictment against Alicia Stepp in the death of 2-year-old Ginny Hughes. A decision is expected this month.
His decision hinged on a lack of consensus from doctors who testified during the Oct. 5 coroner’s inquest that led to Alicia Stepp’s two-week incarceration. The nine experts could not agree that 2-year-old Ginny Hughes died at the hands of an abuser, even though it was a prevailing theory among them.
The prosecutors’ case Thursday relied on Coroner Rae Wooten’s testimony, during which she acknowledged that experts’ findings were not “100 percent” conclusive.
The coroner, who issued the warrant for Stepp’s arrest after an inquest jury found her responsible, said she did not regret her role, which has come under fire from attorneys and civil-liberties activists who claimed Stepp’s due-process rights might have been violated.
“The inquest was valuable to share a lot of information about Ginny’s death,” she said. “I don’t think there is a reason to be disappointed.”
The preliminary hearing, which was postponed from last week, was a routine proceeding to determine whether there was probable cause for the case to advance. The felony count that Stepp had faced, homicide by child abuse, carries a minimum prison sentence of 20 years and up to life behind bars.
The charge could be revived if prosecutors pursue an indictment, a route that Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she would consider.
Wilson, who has labeled the coroner’s inquest as “archaic,” expects to make that decision this month.
Magistrate James Gosnell showed concern during his ruling, at times pausing, sighing and saying the case was “difficult from a great deal of perspectives” because it involved a child’s death and a gray area of whether a crime had been committed.
The magistrate said he had not read about the inquest until Thursday, and did not see any other evidence that would have compelled a judge to sign off on Stepp’s arrest.
He based his opinion only on opposing attorneys’ arguments and Wooten’s testimony, which was lacking at times in specificity about doctors’ opinions. She did not consult a transcript of the inquest.
Stepp did not attend the hearing, nor did 25-year-old Amanda Montagu, the woman who hired Stepp to watch Ginny and her two other children while she worked. Besides journalists, the courtroom audience consisted only of college students studying the case.
Defense attorney David Aylor of Charleston expressed relief for his client, who he said was not available for comment.
Aylor and an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged Stepp’s arrest as a potential violation of her due-process rights under the Fifth Amendment.
Conjuring the same legal complaints he has advanced in the news media, Aylor started the proceeding with a barrage of questions challenging Wooten’s expertise and her approach to calling the inquest.
It was an avenue that the magistrate didn’t allow.
“Credibility is not an issue today,” Gosnell said.
Aylor and the ACLU have called for a wholesale review of inquest procedures and whether the one-day trial, which Aylor said concluded with a highly technical finding from an “amateur” jury, still serves a purpose in the world of modern science.
The coroner has maintained that the inquest served its purpose to iron out the facts, something the police struggled to do.
“Hopefully, if this case has any good come out of it,” Aylor said, “there will be some legislative review.”
The North Charleston Police Department was called July 2 to the Brossy Circle home where Stepp reported that she had found Ginny unresponsive.
She explained the bruises that officers found on Ginny by saying the girl often would injure herself by falling. Ginny suffered a birth defect that stunted the growth of her feet.
Paramedics revived Ginny’s heart, but she never breathed again on her own. She died two days later.
Some experts later testified in front of Wooten and the inquest jury that the large bruises on Ginny’s back and head couldn’t be caused by falls or a medical condition. An autopsy found that a lack of oxygen to Ginny’s brain caused her death, and some experts testified that someone could have smothered or strangled her.
The child’s mother said she never suspected the live-in baby sitter of abuse, even after doctors raised the possibility this spring, when Ginny was hospitalized with a stroke. Experts couldn’t prove abuse.
“This was a perfectly healthy child,” Solicitor Larry Todd argued during the hearing Thursday. “There’s no medical reason for this loss of oxygen to the brain. And it happened two times, both times when the defendant was there.”
In questioning Wooten, Aylor pointed out inconsistencies in doctors’ opinions. He also referred to testimony from one expert who said bleeding on Ginny’s brain could have cropped up well before the day she stopped breathing.
That cast doubt on when the fatal injury occurred and who was there.
Aylor said his client was guilty of nothing more than “being present when the victim fell ill.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.