The Charleston County coroner next week will take a relatively rare and sometimes controversial step by holding an inquest into a Mount Pleasant toddler’s suspected child abuse death.
Elijah Washington, 2, died in March 2013 after his grandmother’s boyfriend brought him unconscious to a hospital. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered blunt-force trauma and a ruptured bowel.
In a bid to find the truth, the inquest allows Coroner Rae Wooten to subpoena family members and experts for their testimony. A six-member jury, which is drawn from the local population, can decide whether Elijah died in a homicide and whether someone should be held criminally responsible.
The proceeding is set to start at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Charleston County Judicial Center and could last for days.
Wooten already has concluded that someone killed Elijah, but a criminal charge against a suspect fell apart. In situations where several people take care of a child, evidence often doesn’t point to a particular suspect. That makes the cases difficult to prosecute.
“I take children’s deaths very, very seriously,” she has said. “I do probably some of the most extensive investigations into children’s deaths in the state, possibly the country, because it’s a tragedy when vulnerable individuals are preyed on. ... Elijah’s case is very concerning to me.”
Wooten has become one of the most aggressive coroners in the state in pursuing such cases, but her tactics have drawn some criticism. A 2012 inquest into a death similar to Elijah’s prompted a criminal charge that a judge later threw out, prompting an attorney to say Wooten’s efforts were overzealous.
The lawyer, David Aylor of Charleston, represented suspects in that case and in Elijah’s death.
“I have serious concerns about the process and feel as though the investigation should take place within a police agency and solicitor’s office and should be left there,” Aylor said Thursday. “Any court proceedings should be left to a circuit court judge and not a coroner.”
In Elijah’s death, Mount Pleasant detectives arrested his grandmother’s boyfriend, Bryan Seabrook, on a charge of homicide by child abuse. Seabrook was the only adult caring for Elijah during a two-hour span before the toddler fell ill.
But problems emerged as Seabrook waited in jail for his trial date.
Some experts concluded that Elijah’s old injuries — a possible indication of sustained abuse — meant that a slight blow to his stomach could prove fatal. He also could have suffered the deadly injury up to six hours before he was hospitalized, when other adults were home.
Seabrook maintained that he never abused Elijah before the child started vomiting. The boy’s stomach swelled, he became rigid, and he passed out, Seabrook said.
Prosecutors, citing evidence that suggested a broader list of possible suspects, dropped the charge in September.
“I understand why I was a suspect,” Seabrook told The Post and Courier then. “That’s about the only thing I understand about it — because I was the last person with him.”
Suspected child abuse deaths haunt Wooten, and she has stood by the inquest as an investigative tool.
An inquest jury found a babysitter responsible for the 2012 death of Ginny Hughes, 2, in North Charleston. Wooten signed a warrant for the babysitter’s arrest and presided over a bond hearing. The homicide charge was dismissed at a preliminary hearing, though, when a magistrate said the suspect’s mere presence did not necessarily implicate her in the death.
Aylor, the defense attorney in that case and the current one, said Seabrook has been subpoenaed to testify at next week’s inquest.
“It’s unfortunate,” Aylor said, “that he’s being dragged back into court by the coroner after already going through the process in the proper legal channels.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.