Baby sitter Alicia Stepp caused the death of North Charleston toddler Ginny Rose Hughes, a coroner's jury ruled Friday.
After deliberating for more than an hour, the six-member jury ruled that Ginny died as a result of “extreme indifference to human life.”
Stepp was taken into custody by police late Friday, according to a court official. A bond hearing is being held this morning. Check back with postandcourier.com for details on the charges.
Stepp, 17, was a live-in baby sitter for Amanda Montagu, the mother of 2-year-old Ginny. On July 2, the toddler was rushed to a hospital after Stepp told investigators she found Ginny unresponsive in bed. Ginny was declared brain dead July 4.
Two Medical University of South Carolina doctors testified that they thought the child had been abused.
“The most probable cause of how she got to this point was an inflicted injury,” Dr. Carrie Busch told the jury.
Dr. Ann Able, a pediatrican who specializes in child-abuse cases, said she noticed bruises on Ginny's back and head.
“The number and location of the bruises concerned me,” Able said. “She was harmed by someone in a way that cut off her oxygen.”
Able suggested to the jury and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten that the possible cause of death was suffocation with a soft, pillow-like object.
Doctors ran every test possible in an exhaustive effort to identify a medical cause for Ginny's death, she said.
“We are left with inflicted trauma,” Able said.
Stepp did not show up for a planned polygraph test Thursday, said North Charleston Detective Jill Farman.
Sgt. Tammy Driggers testified that she asked Stepp if she had harmed the child. “If I did, I don't remember,” Stepp responded, according to Driggers.
Montagu testified that her daughter fell a lot because she liked to try to walk on legs that had been amputated below the knee. Montagu, who worked at a Waffle House, was on the job when Stepp was at home with Ginny.
Stepp testified that she came home at 5:30 a.m. July 2 after being out all night with friends. She said that she was operating on about 30 minutes sleep when she took over responsibility for Montagu's three children, including Ginny.
Stepp said she had given two weeks' notice to Montagu that she did not want to baby-sit her children any more because it was too time-consuming.
After breakfast and playing with toys, Ginny, who was sleepy, went to bed to take a nap, Stepp said. Stepp told the jury she went to check on Ginny a short time later, ran her fingers through Ginny's hair and called her name, but the toddler just lay there.
“That's when I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I realized she wasn't breathing and I couldn't hear her heartbeat when I checked.”
MUSC doctors testified that they were concerned that child abuse played a role in Ginny's April 30 trip to the emergency room for seizures and a stroke.
Among other things, doctors noted unexplained bruising, bleeding on her brain and hemorrhaging on her eyes. Her head was also larger than normal, though she had not been born that way, they said.
The hospital's social worker also discovered some history of drug use and domestic violence in her home, Dr. Mia Amaya said in videotaped testimony.
Doctors notified the state Department of Social Services, who removed Ginny and her two siblings from the home. But medical teams, despite their suspicions, could never find conclusive explanations for Ginny's ailments or definitive proof that abuse had played a role, Amaya said.
After Ginny's death, an autopsy noted signs of bloody fluid on the brain and signs that oxygen to her brain had been cut off, but no further explanations as to what had caused this to happen.
Ginny was born with a defect that left her without feet, but she managed to get around by crawling on her knees. Other than her birth defect, “she was a healthy, normal 2-year-old,” her pediatrician, Dr. Mary Kate Tillman, testified.
Ginny checked out fine during a wellness visit in March, but she returned in late April with strep throat, Tillman said. The doctor noted bruising on the toddler's nose and forehead, but it seemed consistent with her mother's explanation that she had fallen off a couch, she said.
Soon after, however, Ginny was hospitalized after suffering a seizure at home.
“The left side of her body is twitching,” Montagu told an emergency dispatcher on a 911 tape played for the jury. “I have no idea what is going on.”
Doctors discovered that a stroke had affected the right side of Ginny's brain. She spent nearly three weeks at Medical University Hospital as specialists ran batteries of tests, but doctors could not come to an agreement as to what had caused the ailments, Amaya testified.
Though some signs pointed toward abuse, doctors found no evidence of broken bones or internal injuries, and a specialist who examined her eye hemorrhages noted that they didn't look like those normally seen in abuse cases.
“Unfortunately, we couldn't put it all together and say there was definitive evidence of child abuse,” Amaya said.
Social workers were called in and Ginny was placed in a foster home. But without any proof of abuse, she was returned to her Brossy Circle home in early June.