Inquest into Mount Pleasant boy’s death could revive criminal case

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten ask a question of a witness during the inquest Tuesday into the death of 2-year-old Elijah Washington.

During a coroner’s inquest Tuesday into a Mount Pleasant boy’s death, police detectives testified about how people commonly react to losing loved ones, discussed misguided theories and spoke of a lead suspect’s unrecorded comments that implicated him.

Eight jurors tasked with deciding whether someone should be charged in the case heard it all.

The proceeding is a rarely used and often controversial tool for South Carolina coroners. It does not follow the ordinary rules of a criminal trial, but the implications can still be serious.

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten knows 2-year-old Elijah Washington was abused before his March 2013 death and thinks someone should be held responsible. But a charge of homicide by child abuse against Bryan Seabrook, the only adult caring for him when he fell ill, was dropped after prosecutors decided that not enough evidence pointed to him.

Expected to last into Wednesday, the inquest could revive the case and put Seabrook back in jail, where he waited for more than a year while proclaiming his innocence. If the jury faults Seabrook, Wooten could sign a warrant for his arrest, and the case could land again in the hands of the prosecutors who dropped it in the first place.

To Seabrook and his attorneys, David Aylor and Mark Peper, the process is unfair. Last week, Seabrook sued Wooten and Mount Pleasant police for malicious prosecution, false arrest and negligence.

Aylor also represented a baby sitter who was arrested after Wooten’s last inquest in a North Charleston toddler’s 2012 death. That case was thrown out once it reached a criminal court.

“It’s a one-sided circus,” Aylor said Tuesday. “It’s an insult to true criminal procedure and the rules of evidence. And it’s not fair to jurors who are ... not getting all the information to determine whether someone should be charged with a serious crime.”

State social workers came to know Elijah when abuse allegations surfaced months before his death. He was placed in a Mount Pleasant home with his grandmother, Marty Dixon, and Dixon’s boyfriend, Seabrook. The boy’s mother, Brittney Hartwell, also lived there. His biological father did not.

Investigators documented past bruising and broken bones.

On the afternoon of Elijah’s death, Dixon and Hartwell both were in the home. But they left, and Seabrook was the only adult with him in the two hours before his death. The boy’s two young sisters were there, too.

Seabrook has maintained that he never abused Elijah before the child started vomiting and passed out. At a hospital, doctors couldn’t revive the boy.

An autopsy later showed Elijah died of blunt-force trauma — a severe blow to his stomach — and Seabrook was quickly arrested. But expert opinions showed Elijah could have suffered the injury before Seabrook was alone with him. That broadened the list of possible suspects, prompting prosecutors’ decision.

But Wooten wants justice for Elijah, she has said.

“It’s a tragedy either way you look at it,” she told jurors at the inquest Tuesday.

She acted as a judge. Only she and the jury could ask questions of witnesses. Seabrook’s attorneys could not. She often summed up witnesses’ testimony for the jurors.

Seabrook and Dixon took the stand only to confirm their relationship to Elijah. They refused to answer more questions, citing their 5th Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.

The boy’s mother did not testify. At one point, Wooten asked a witness where she might be.

The jurors, who were chosen outside the courtroom, at times seemed confused about key points, including Seabrook’s relationship to Elijah and who exactly the coroner is. They heard nurses describe Seabrook as distraught and shocked at the hospital. A Mount Pleasant police officer who questioned him had a different impression.

“He did not appear to be emotional,” Lt. Justin Hembree said. “I found that a little odd. I would be a nervous wreck.”

Seabrook was arrested, Hembree added, after the police determined he was the one who “had the most contact” with Elijah before the boy’s death.

One investigator talked about initial signs that Elijah was sexually assaulted. The jury heard a few witnesses later that the suspicion was wrong.

A detective started talking about how Elijah came home with bruises after visiting his mother, but Wooten interrupted, saying someone else would testify about that later.

Hembree also mentioned the “spontaneous” words that Seabrook uttered before hearing his right to remain silent or after stepping outside an interview room. “I’ve been remorseful ever since,” Seabrook said, according to Hembree’s testimony.

The only family member who answered questions Tuesday was Elijah’s great-grandmother, Sally Perry, widow of the town’s former police chief, Ronald Perry. She told the jurors that she didn’t know about Elijah’s old injuries. She and Dixon are now caring for the boy’s sisters, who call Seabrook their father.

“They say they miss their daddy,” she said.

Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.