Pair won’t face arrest in death of 2-year-old Coroner’s inquest focus of controversy

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten began the inquest July 12 into the death of 2-year-old Elijah Washington.

A man and his girlfriend will not face arrest after the Charleston County coroner’s controversial inquest into the 2013 death of a toddler in Mount Pleasant.

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, through the county attorney, said no warrants would be issued for the arrest of Bryan Seabrook, 29, or his girlfriend Marty Dixon, 48. An inquest jury implicated the two last week in the death of 2-year-old Elijah Washington, Dixon’s grandson, but 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson declined to prosecute the case, citing the inquest’s lower burden of proof compared to criminal proceedings.

A coroner’s inquest is a legal proceeding in which a county coroner calls a jury to determine a person’s manner of death in cases where foul play is suspected. According to state statute, coroners are granted judicial powers, such as the ability to call witnesses and issue arrest warrants.

For Mark Peper, Seabrook’s and Dixon’s attorney, these powers lie at the heart of the controversy because they grant coroners too much power.

“There is still the question as to whether or not a statute from the early 1800s should still apply today when it seems to include both the judicial branch of government and the executive branch of government,” Peper said.

As long as the statute stays in place unchanged, people could face arrest with no burden of proof or probable cause, he said. Although an inquest could serve a legitimate purpose under some circumstances, the process needs to have restrictions.

Moving forward, Peper is representing Seabrook in a pending lawsuit against Wooten and Mount Pleasant alleging false arrest and gross negligence.

The lawsuit will be accompanied by an effort to enlist the help of state legislators in drafting a bill that would overhaul the inquest process, he said.

Two or three state representatives have expressed interest in discussing such a bill, he said, but did not disclose their names.

After a hearing in circuit court Thursday afternoon in downtown Charleston, Peper said his clients are relieved.

“If [Wooten’s] willing to put that on the record in a court of law that she will never issue an arrest warrant for Marty Dixon and Bryan Seabrook, that was good enough for us, but it had to be on the record,” he said.

Peper filed a request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented Wooten from issuing warrants in the case, but that request was nullified by her announcement.

In a statement issued during the hearing, Wooten wrote that after consulting with the state attorney general and reviewing the response, she was exercising her discretion not pursue the case. “It is my belief that proceeding with the issuing of any warrants would only serve to consume judicial and public resources with no expectation that those responsible for the death of Elijah Washington will be held accountable,” her statement said.

Wilson, in a later statement, wrote that Wooten made the right decision in not issuing warrants based on the inquest.

“We appreciate the coroner’s sincere desire to hold someone responsible for Elijah’s death,” Wilson said. “But the inquest testimony lacked the reliability the community expects in the criminal justice system.”

Authorities have said that Washington was abused before his death in March 2013. He suffered a severe blow to the stomach that caused internal bleeding, they said.

Seabrook was the only adult at home when Washington fell ill. Dixon and the boy’s mother, Brittney Hartwell, had been caring for him earlier. Seabrook was arrested based on autopsy results, but prosecutors dropped the case last year, citing evidence favoring him.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908.