The attorney for a baby sitter charged in a North Charleston toddler’s death has accused Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten of violating his client’s rights by compelling her to testify in an inquest that led to her arrest.
David Aylor, attorney for Alicia Stepp, said his client did not have an attorney present during Friday’s proceeding, was not informed of her rights before testifying and was never told she was a potential target for arrest.
Stepp, 18, testified twice during the day-long inquest into the July 4 death of 2-year-old Ginny Hughes, who passed away after her brain was deprived of oxygen. The coroner’s office suspected abuse was at fault, and the six-member jury Wooten empaneled found Stepp responsible for the girl’s death.
Stepp was arrested that night on a warrant issued by Wooten and remains jailed on a $100,000 bond on a charge of homicide by child abuse.
“When I was a prosecutor, we worked with trained law enforcement investigators and followed leads until we had all the facts of the case,” Aylor said. “Ms. Wooten’s intervention in this case may have prevented a thorough investigation by trained police investigators and a thorough review by the Solicitor’s Office.”
Wooten was out of the office this afternoon and could not immediately be reached for comment.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said her office was not involved in the inquest and that she has not reviewed the case to see what witnesses were called, what testimony was given and what evidence was presented. She said it’s difficult at this point to assess how the case will be affected.
“But I think it’s a stretch to say that because an inquest was held the process is somehow tainted,” she said.
Wilson said inquests are not governed by the same strict rules, protections and procedures as trials and that people should not confuse the two proceedings.
“It was a fact-gathering process — nothing more, nothing less,” Wilson said. “And at the conclusion it was deemed there were enough facts and evidence to make an arrest … It’s the wild, Wild West compared to a criminal trial. But that doesn’t mean there are not useful facts that can be gathered through that process.”
Stepp was the live-in baby sitter for Ginny as her mother, 25-year-old Amanda Montagu, worked. Stepp blamed Ginny’s several unexplained bruises on her attempts to walk with a birth defect that prevented the growth of her feet.
But experts testified that Ginny suffered seizures and a stroke in May that weren’t consistent with a fall. She was hospitalized again July 2 with a brain injury and died two days later.
The charge against Stepp now rests in prosecutors’ hands.
Aylor maintains his client should not even be in this position and that the inquest system has stacked the deck unfairly against his client.
“Ms. Wooten meets the minimum legal standard of the requirement to be a coroner, but she is neither a police detective, nor an attorney and she is not a medical doctor,” he said. “In this case, Ms. Wooten played prosecutor, police investigator and judge.”