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Ashley N. Hepburn Acquitted By South Carolina Supreme Court Of Child Homicide Conviction

Ashley Nicole Hepburn has been acquitted by the South Carolina Supreme Court of her conviction of homicide by child abuse in the death of her 16-month-old daughter Audrina Claire Hepburn on October 17, 2009.

Ashley Nicole Hepburn with her son Owen (family photo)

Ashley Nicole Hepburn with her son Owen (family photo)

In October 2009 Hepburn was 21 and separated from her husband. She was living in Cross Hill, South Carolina with Audrina, her two-year-old son Owen, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Hepburn’s 25-year-old boyfriend Richard Brandon Lewis would spend the night at her house several nights a week.

Lewis arrived at Hepburn’s house on the evening of October 12 to spend the night. Hepburn was watching television in her bedroom around 11 p.m. when Lewis checked on Audrina and she looked up at him. When he checked on her about 1:30 a.m. she was face down in her crib and unresponsive. He woke up Hepburn, and her mother and boyfriend were awoken. Lewis told them he thought Audrina had a seizure and 911 was called.

Audrina was taken to Self Regional Hospital in Greenwood. Doctors who treated her reported she had some bruises, labored breathing, and overall lacked responsiveness. That morning both Lewis and Hepburn were interviewed by the police. They didn’t report anything unusual about Audrina’s behavior when she went to bed.

Audrina was later transported to Greenville Memorial Hospital where a CAT scan showed she had a subdural hematoma. A subdural hematoma is usually caused by a fall, motor vehicle collision, or an assault that results in torn blood vessels along the surface of the brain. Although symptoms may not be apparent for several days or weeks, the accumulation of blood causes pressure on the brain in severe cases can result in death. Audrina died on October 17 from complications of her subdural hematoma.

Audrina Hepburn (April 10, 2009 family photo)

Audrina Hepburn (April 10, 2009 family photo)

Up to the time Audrina Hepburn was taken to the hospital she had no history of falls, injuries, traumas or illnesses, and no injuries consistent with child abuse had been observed by any friends, relatives, or doctors who had seen her.

After Audrina’s death Hepburn and Lewis were both indicted for homicide by child abuse, and aiding and abetting child abuse.

During their joint trial as codefendants that began in February 2011, the prosecution’s case was based on medical testimony about Audrina’s injuries. There was no testimony anyone had seen either Lewis or Hepburn mistreat her children, while there was testimony she was a loving mother.

After the prosecution concluded its case Hepburn and Lewis both made motions for the judge to order a directed verdict of acquittal based on the prosecution’s failure to introduce sufficient evidence they were guilty. The judge denied the motions.

Hepburn testified in her defense and denied causing any harm to her daughter.

At the close of evidence Hepburn and Lewis again both made motions for the judge to order a directed verdict of acquittal based on the prosecution’s failure to introduce sufficient evidence they were guilty. The judge denied those motions.

Richard Brandon Lewis after his conviction on March 3, 2011

Richard Brandon Lewis after his conviction on March 3, 2011

The prosecution argued to the jury that although their case was circumstantial, Hepburn and Lewis were responsible for Audrina’s fatal head injury, and they argued the evidence supported that Hepburn inflicted the injury and she was aided by Lewis who allowed it to happen.

The jury agreed with the prosecution’s argument. After eight hours of deliberation, on March 3, 2011 they convicted Hepburn of homicide by child abuse and Lewis of aiding and abetting child abuse. Hepburn was acquitted of aiding and abetting child abuse and Lewis was acquitted of homicide by child abuse.

The judge sentenced Hepburn to 45 years in prison, and Lewis to 10 years in prison with his sentence suspended after 7 years in custody.

Hepburn and Lewis both argued in their separate appeals that the judge erred in not granting their motions for a directed verdict.

On May 5, 2013 the South Carolina Court of Appeals vacated Lewis’ conviction and acquitted him in ruling the prosecution presented insufficient evidence he aided and abetted Audrina’s death, so the trial judge erred in not granting his motion for a directed verdict. In State v. Richard Brandon Lewis, 403 S.C. 345, 743 S.E.2d 124 (SC Ct of Appeals, 5-15-2013) the appeals court plainly stated:

The record does not contain any evidence to support this conviction. … The State did not present any evidence of an overt act or the requisite state of mind for aiding and abetting.”

We find there was no evidence to support the charge of aiding and abetting against Lewis, and a directed verdict should have been granted in Lewis’s favor. For the foregoing reasons, the trial court is REVERSED.”

The appeals court denied a rehearing on June 20, 2013, and Lewis was released on bond pending dismissal of his indictment. As of January 2, 2014 the South Carolina Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the State’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision. However, it seems unlikely the Supreme Court will accept the case in light of their ruling in Hepburn’s case.

On December 11, 2013 the South Carolina Supreme Court vacated Hepburn’s conviction in ruling the prosecution presented insufficient evidence she committed homicide by child abuse, so the trial judge erred in not granting her motion for a directed verdict. In State v. Ashley Nicole Hepburn, Opinion No. 27336 (SC Sup. Ct., 12-11-2013) the Court stated:

“… every piece of the State’s evidence establishes (1) Appellant was asleep at the time the victim sustained her injuries, (2) Appellant was only awoken after Lewis retrieved the unresponsive victim from her crib, and (3) the victim appeared to be acting normally until after Appellant put the victim to sleep and went to sleep herself. … medical testimony adduced at trial indicated that the victim would not have appeared “normal” within a short period of time after her injuries were inflicted due to the nature and extent of her neurological injuries. However, there is no evidence that Appellant herself was aware of the victim’s injuries, let alone caused them.

Based on the foregoing, we find the trial court erred in refusing to grant Appellant’s mid-trial motion for directed verdict, and now direct a verdict of acquittal.”

Six days after the Supreme Court’s ruling an order was issued on December 17, 2013 by the Laurens County Eighth Judicial Circuit Court reversing Hepburn’s conviction. Hepburn was released on a $10,000 surety bond pending dismissal of her indictment. Now 25, she was incarcerated for more than 33 months.

With both Ashley Hepburn and Richard Lewis acquitted, the cause of baby Audrina’s fatal injury is unknown. However, on the evening she was taken to the hospital two other adults were in the house who were not investigated as suspects.

Click here to read the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruling in State v. Richard Brandon Lewis, 403 S.C. 345, 743 S.E.2d 124 (SC Ct of Appeals, 5-15-2013).

Click here to read the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in State v. Ashley Nicole Hepburn, No. 27336 (SC Sup. Ct., 12-11-2013).

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Audrina Hepburn’s Obituary published in The Greenville News

Audrina Claire Hepburn, age 16 months, died Saturday, October 17, 2009, in the Greenville Memorial Hospital.

She was born June 6, 2008 in Tacoma, Wash. and is the daughter of Daniel Hepburn of Laurens.

In addition to her father, she is survived by a brother, Owen Hepburn; her paternal grandparents, Rita Hepburn and Kenneth Ebel of Mountville; her great-grandparents, Bernadette and John Carnes of Laurens; her aunts, Sarah and Emily Ebel of Mountville, and Brittany Franklin and husband, Matthew, of Cross Hill; and a cousin, Matthew Franklin, Jr. of Mountville.

Funeral services will be conducted on Thursday, October 22, 2009, at 2 p.m. at The Church of the Epiphany of Laurens with burial in the Sandy Springs United Methodist Church Cemetery.

The family will be at the home of her great grandparents, Bernadette and John Carnes at 518 Conway Avenue in Laurens.

Memorials may be made to Laurens County DSS, P.O. Box 409, Laurens, SC 29360.

Condolences may be expressed to the family online at www.grayfuneralhome.com.

Gray Funeral Home of Laurens
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By Hans Sherrer
Justice Denied

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