Attorney blames coroner’s ‘rush to judgment’ as homicide case against ex-babysitter is dropped

Alicia Stepp (left), a former babysitter, was charged with homicide by child abuse in the July 4, 2012, death of 2-year-old Ginny Hughes (right). (PROVIDED)

An attorney for a former North Charleston babysitter on Wednesday said the county coroner’s “rush to judgment” resulted in a homicide charge that even prosecutors didn’t support.

Alicia Stepp, 19, of Holly Avenue in Goose Creek, had faced a count of homicide by child abuse in the July 2012 death of disabled toddler Ginny Hughes.

The charge came after an inquest by Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten faulted Stepp, though some experts said the girl’s injuries could have been accidental. A magistrate later dismissed the charge during a preliminary hearing. Prosecutors still could have pursued a grand jury indictment.

But Assistant Solicitor Debbie Herring-Lash said Wednesday that the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office had reviewed the case and “believe the (magistrate) made the correct decision based on the evidence we have been provided.”

Wooten stood by the inquest as a way to achieve a “thorough investigation” and to give the public the facts of a case. Ginny’s death, she said, remains classified as a homicide because of the inquest jury’s verdict.

“It is unfortunate that some attempt to discredit our jury system,” she said. “We should be reminded that juries serve as the basis of our judicial system.”

But Stepp’s attorney, David Aylor, dubbed Wooten’s inquest and the arrest warrant “a rush to judgment” and a “failure of criminal due process.” Stepp did not have an attorney during the inquest.

“Ms. Wooten played prosecutor, police investigator and judge,” Aylor said Wednesday. “It is a tragedy that Alicia has had to endure these allegations for nearly a year.”

Ginny, 2, died after the oxygen flow to her brain was cut off. Experts also found bruises on her back and her head, raising the suspicion of abuse. They said she could have died of strangulation or suffocation, though no such determination was made.

The toddler also had a genetic defect that stunted the growth of her feet, and some experts testified during Wooten’s inquest that the injuries could have been caused by falls.

Still, the inquest jury attributed her death to Stepp, who had been hired as a live-in babysitter by Ginny’s mother, Amanda Montagu.

Stepp was arrested after Wooten issued a warrant in early October. Magistrate James Gosnell later ruled that Stepp’s mere presence in the home when Ginny was found unresponsive didn’t imply guilt.

Aylor said an inquest’s primary purpose is to determine how someone died. He plans to work with lawmakers in Columbia, he said, to enact “appropriate safeguards” and prevent “abuse” of coroners’ powers in South Carolina.

“We will, of course, explore all legal options available to her,” Aylor said of Stepp. “But at this point, the family is just relieved to have closure on the nightmare that was the charge itself.”

The inquest was the second in 2012. At the time, Wooten said she was considering inquests into two other children’s deaths. She has held no such proceeding since then, but she said Wednesday that Stepp’s case hadn’t discouraged her from future inquests.

“When the need arises,” she said, “there will be another one.”

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