A magistrate dismissed this morning the case against an 18-year-old woman accused of killing the North Charleston toddler she was baby-sitting.
Magistrate James Gosnell said that his decision was difficult but that there was no probable cause for the charge of homicide by child abuse against Alicia Stepp to move forward.
His ruling doesn’t mean the case is over: Prosecutors could pursue an indictment against Stepp, which Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she would consider.
The charge that Stepp had faced carries a minimum prison sentence of 20 years and up to life behind bars. The hearing, which was postponed from last week, was meant to determine whether the case should advance toward a trial.
Stepp’s attorney, David Aylor of Charleston, argued during the hearing that doctors were not able to “100 percent” determine that 2-year-old Ginny Hughes died of abuse.
Coroner Rae Wooten testified during the proceeding and answered questions about the medical opinions brought forth in the Oct. 5 inquest that led to Stepp’s arrest. She sometimes grew frustrated in answering questions from Aylor.
“There was no medical testimony that this child in fact was determined to be murdered by abuse,” Aylor said in closing. “Their opinions were differing.”
The attorney said his client was guilty of nothing more than “being present when the victim fell ill.”
In the end, Gosnell said “mere presence” did not constitute probable cause.
In comments after the hearing, Wooten said that she was not disappointed and that she respected the ruling. She added that she didn’t regret calling the inquest.
Assistant Solicitor Larry Todd had countered Aylor during the proceeding, saying every doctor determined that Ginny’s cause of death was the lack of oxygen to the brain and that Stepp was the only adult present when the fatal injury occurred.
“There is no medical reason for this loss of oxygen to the brain,” Todd said. “We’ve got to ask you to think like a real-life human being here, your honor.”
The case against Stepp has posed questions about the inquest procedure. Stepp was arrested under a warrant signed by Wooten after testifying in front of a jury that found her responsible for Ginny’s death.
Prosecutors have dubbed the inquest process archaic.
Stepp’s attorney and experts from the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged her arrest as potentially contrary to her due-process rights under the Fifth Amendment. She also should have been informed of her right to remain silent, they have argued.
But Wooten has maintained that the procedure has been well-established by law since the 1800s and that it served its purpose to iron out the case facts — something she said the police struggled to do.
Ginny was born with a defect that stunted the growth of her feet.
The North Charleston Police Department was called July 2 to the Brossy Circle home where Stepp reported that she had found Ginny unresponsive while serving as a live-in baby sitter.
Stepp explained the bruises that officers found on Ginny by saying that the girl often would injure herself by falling while trying to walk. But experts later 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.
The toddler died two days after she was hospitalized. An autopsy ruled that a lack of oxygen to Ginny’s brain caused her death, and experts testified during the inquest that someone must have smothered or strangled her.
Amanda Montagu, a college student who had been working as a waitress when the police were summoned to her mobile home, appeared to be a doting mother who posted dozens of photos of Ginny online. Montagu, a 25-year-old with two other children, has said that she never suspected the baby sitter of abuse, even after doctors raised the possibility this spring, when Ginny was hospitalized with seizures and a stroke.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.