Coroner Rae Wooten’s announcement Friday that she will conduct an inquest into the mauling death of a 2-year-old was expected, but it’s a relative rarity.
The last time her office used the procedure was four years ago, when a jury heard evidence regarding a peculiar plane crash in 2007.
In the latest instance, which is scheduled for Aug. 10, Wooten will listen to witness testimony and expert opinion about Ja’Marr Tiller, who was bitten repeatedly by dogs that a family member had been feeding. While relatives thought Ja’Marr was sleeping, the boy walked unnoticed downstairs and through an unlocked door on the evening of May 27.
Returning home after running errands, his mother, Deandra Tiller, was the first to find his bloodied body outside the house in the 2700 block of U.S. Highway 17. His clothes had been torn off.
Wooten, who will act as a judge for the proceeding, called the case “very complicated,” one in which police investigators have not collected enough evidence to make an arrest.
Any findings by the inquest’s six-member jury would not require prosecutors to file charges, but typically “it’s very compelling,” she said in a statement.
“Tiller’s death was not natural or a suicide,” the coroner said, “but is it appropriate to say it’s an accident or to charge someone with neglect?”
In the week after the incident, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office indicated that two Labrador-shepherd mixes were to blame. Deputies dubbed them “yard dogs” that were fed scraps from the family’s table by the toddler’s great uncle.
Deputies corralled one of the dogs seen vomiting soon after the mauling. The other was trapped later in the evening.
Family members told The Post and Courier that the dogs had never bared their teeth or acted aggressively toward any of the five children living at the house. A deputy at the scene on the night of the death, however, said relatives had feared such a tragedy all along.
Maj. Jim Brady, a sheriff’s spokesman, said Friday that investigators haven’t gathered enough information that faults any of the adults in the house.
In the days after the incident, the coroner indicated that she likely would hold an inquest because the circumstances leading to the death remained unclear.
“There’s nothing new,” Brady said. “That’s the reason why the coroner is doing this.”
Brady added Friday that a marijuana plant found on the property would not result in a criminal charge because it wasn’t traced to any of the home’s occupants.
During the last inquest in Charleston County, in 2008, a jury switched the manner of death for two plane-crash victims from “accidental” to “undetermined.”
The year before, a World War II-era biplane carrying a 61-year-old pilot and his 76-year-old passenger crashed into Charleston Harbor during a military ceremony at Patriots Point.
Questions arose about whether the crash truly was accidental: Investigators found that a lever typically used when the plane is parked was engaged during the flight.
Unlike police investigators, Wooten has subpoena power that helps fill in such blanks.
“With the coroner being the lead death investigator in the county, this is really important,” Chief Deputy Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said. “She is able to compel witnesses to come and testify. It will get the facts on her desk.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.