Two weeks ago, Alicia Stepp walked into a courtroom planning to testify in a coroner’s inquest into death of the 2-year-old toddler she was baby-sitting.
If she didn’t field questions, her attorney said, the high school dropout feared possible jail time for disobeying a court order.
Stepp didn’t know that she was the inquest’s target.
The result of the daylong proceeding was a jury deeming her responsible for Ginny Hughes’ death. She was arrested, and the same coroner who had summoned her to court that day set her bail at $100,000.
She had been jailed ever since.
Likening the inquest to a “star chamber,” the defunct English court known for arbitrary rulings, attorney David Aylor of Charleston asked for a lesser bail Friday. He argued that his client’s constitutional rights might have been violated when she wasn’t informed of an option to stay silent and was jailed without due process.
“This 18-year-old was just doing what she was ordered to do,” Aylor said. “To go into a coroner’s inquest with the understanding that she was just a witness ... then ultimately leaving in handcuffs was nothing less than a nightmare.”
Asking Aylor to save his invoking of Fifth Amendment rights for later proceedings, Judge Markley Dennis halved Stepp’s bail. After she was released later in the day on $50,000 bail, she was ordered on house arrest except to visit her attorney, doctor or church.
Since the inquest Oct. 5, the procedure first established 150 years ago has come under scrutiny as antiquated and unfair. The result in Ginny’s case has attorneys and prosecutors treading new legal ground, and a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that the inquest procedure has a “systemic” problem that needs close analysis.
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, who acted as a trial judge and victims advocate during the inquest and as a magistrate the next day during Stepp’s bond hearing, has maintained that the inquest is a legal procedure for determining whether someone is at fault for a death.
Wooten is expected to testify as a witness during a preliminary hearing Tuesday. She said in a statement that Friday’s hearing was “routine and appropriate” and that her role is to “rule on the manner of death in accordance with state law, not guilt or innocence.”
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said prosecutors will proceed with the case as they would any other.
They will consult with Wooten and the North Charleston Police Department to determine within a month whether it should be put before a grand jury, Wilson said. But she acknowledged that “inquest statutes are pretty archaic” compared with fresher laws governing criminal procedure.
“This is an unusual path to follow,” the solicitor said. “Certainly, we will do whatever we can to find justice for Ginny.”
Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said the law is unclear on an inquest’s purpose and the extent of a coroner’s authority. The case is the first of its kind in recent memory for South Carolina, but it’s a nationwide issue, she said.
“Our concerns are about the process by which the coroner issued the arrest warrant to begin with,” said Dunn, who added that the ACLU is not actively involved in the case. “I think there’s a clear problem with the system.”
Ginny was born with a defect that stunted her feet’s growth. After the police were called July 2 to the Brossy Circle home where Stepp was serving as a live-in baby sitter while Ginny’s mother worked, Stepp told officers that Ginny’s bruises were caused by falling when trying to walk.
But experts testified in front of Wooten and a six-member jury that the girl’s injuries, including large bruises on her back and head, couldn’t be caused by falls.
Two days after Stepp called 911 to report that Ginny wasn’t breathing, she died at a hospital. Experts said a lack of oxygen to her brain caused Ginny’s death, and they theorized during the inquest that someone must have smothered or strangled the toddler.
The charge that Stepp faces carries a minimum prison sentence of 20 years and up to life behind bars.
Stepp, who had no past legal problems, plans to live with her aunt, uncle and 13-year-old cousin in Ladson.
Aylor said his client’s situation could prompt legislative review of state laws and have implications on how future inquests are conducted. The coroner is considering inquests into two other child deaths.
“Whatever the facts — if they are facts — they came about from a procedure that’s unlike any other,” Aylor said. “This case is scary for everybody when it comes to civil liberties. There’s a reason we have the Fifth Amendment.”