Inquest implicates 2 in death

A photo of 2-year-old Elijah Washington is shown this week during an inquest into his death.

The Charleston County coroner’s two-day inquest into the 2013 death of a Mount Pleasant toddler has implicated a man and his girlfriend, but the 9th Circuit solicitor said she would not prosecute the case.

Bryan Seabrook, 29, was already arrested and charged once with homicide by child abuse, but the charge was dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence pointing specifically to him. Six jurors returned a decision Wednesday that Seabrook could again be held responsible for the crime and his girlfriend as an accessory, 48-year-old Marty Dixon, the grandmother of 2-year-old Elijah Washington.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said prosecutors from her office attended the inquest, and she stressed that the proceeding’s burden of proof is lower than theirs.

“We will not prosecute it,” she said, addressing how she would handle the case if arrests were made. “There are no new facts, erroneous testimony and exculpatory information that was not presented to the jury.”

Neither Seabrook nor Dixon agreed to answer any questions about Elijah’s death when they took the witness stand this week. They invoked their 5th Amendment right, which says they don’t have to testify against themselves.

Seabrook’s lawyer, David Aylor, said late Wednesday that he knew of no warrants issued for his client’s arrest. If that happens later, he said, Seabrook will cooperate and look forward to the case being handed to prosecutors who dropped the first charge against him.

When Coroner Rae Wooten’s last inquest faulted a North Charleston baby sitter in a toddler’s 2012 death, she had the suspect arrested that night. A judge tossed that case out once it reached the court system.

Aylor, who also represented the baby sitter, called the inquest an “abuse of an archaic law” that permits South Carolina coroners to hold such proceedings. Seabrook last week sued police investigators and the coroner for false arrest and malicious prosecution.

“This was nothing but a kangaroo court,” Aylor said after the verdict. “It was disrespectful to not only the memory of Elijah but the families involved, including Mr. Seabrook and all others who were dragged into the courtroom.”

To those who knew him early in his short life, Elijah was a rambunctious, sweet and smart little boy.

He was born to a drug-addicted woman, so his great-grandmother took him home from the hospital. State social workers checked on him. He turned into a happy, healthy child.

But bumps and bruises started showing up on his body. His great-grandmother said they appeared after visits with family members in Mount Pleasant. The usual explanation: He fell.

Just before Christmas 2012, he went to live at the Mount Pleasant home with his mother and grandmother. Something changed.

“It’s like he was a totally different child,” said Doris Washington, a guardian ad litem who visited Elijah in both homes. “I couldn’t get a smile out of him. He was very timid ... like he was afraid. He wasn’t a happy child there.”

Elijah died months later, in March 2013, after authorities said he was abused.

An autopsy dubbed his death a homicide and revealed that he had likely suffered a fatal blow to the stomach. Seabrook, who lived in the home was arrested.

The guardian and close family members testified Wednesday at the inquest. They described a mix of heartache, failings of a state system and surprise at the revelations after Elijah’s death.

The boy’s great-grandmother, Dorothy Williams, wept in front of the jury.

“What could a baby do to anyone?” Williams said. “I know something happened to him. I just want justice ... so he can rest.”

After the S.C. Department of Social Services got involved at his birth, Elijah lived with Williams for 18 months.

Brittney Hartwell, his mother, and Dixon saw him occasionally. The injuries that Williams said she noticed after the visits didn’t seem serious.

“He wasn’t all bruised and scarred up,” she said.

But the boy grew aggressive. He would knock off her glasses and throw things. When Elijah started talking, Williams asked what he did during the visits. “Play,” he said, with Seabrook. Williams said Seabrook liked to wrestle with children in the home.

Hartwell eventually got sober. She and Dixon took Elijah in December 2012.

“He was crying,” Williams said. “That was the last time I saw him.”

She later learned pieces of what happened in the coming months.

Elijah complained of stomach pain as Seabrook was caring for him the day he died. He passed out and never woke up, according to testimony.

An expert witness said to the jury Wednesday that by the time Elijah made it to the hospital, it was too late.

“At that point, he really was dead as he hit the door,” said Susan Lamb, a child-abuse pediatrician at the University of South Carolina.

Lamb reviewed Elijah’s case after his death at Wooten’s request. Her opinion was that Elijah absolutely had been abused before he was killed but that “hindsight was 20/20” in the case.

At the inquest, jurors heard about a broken leg that Elijah suffered four days after going to the new home. Hartwell testified that she had found him saying, “Ow.” A doctor found a spiral fracture — likely the result of intentional twisting, he testified.

A nurse later noted bruises and a burn. DSS again got involved, but within two weeks, Elijah was back in the home. Other doctors had said his broken leg “was common,” Hartwell testified, “that kids could get it easily” in a fall. Lamb confirmed this.

Hartwell said her life with Elijah was good. She went to cosmetology school, and her mother worked, so Seabrook often watched the boy and his sisters.

“I figured if my mom trusted him,” she said, “I could trust him.”

Washington, the guardian, said she felt ignored after expressing concerns to DSS, and she later quit her volunteer role.

“It’s the system, period,” she testified. “When I go to court and feel something is wrong, what we say should take preference over everything else. We’re speaking for the child.”

Williams, the great-grandmother, said the ordeal left her broken.

“I just have a hole in my heart,” she said. “It’s like a part of my life just went out of me. I’m trying to find it. But I can’t find it.”

Hartwell cried over the death of her son. As she testified, she told Wooten that she hadn’t seen her two daughters since then either. They live with Dixon, but she cannot visit.

Wooten told Hartwell that she was “sorry for your loss” of three children.

“I went down a dark path after it happened,” Hartwell said. “I want answers.”

Melissa Boughton contributed to this report.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.