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Court orders mother’s acquittal in baby death

COLUMBIA (AP) — The South Carolina Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a mother in the death of her toddler daughter, ruling Wednesday that a trial judge should have decided that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to continue their case.

The ruling came nearly three years after Ashley Nicole Hepburn, 25, was convicted of homicide by child abuse and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Authorities initially charged Hepburn with murder after her 16-month-old daughter, Audrina, died at a hospital of brain injuries.

Deputies said Hepburn told them the girl had been fussy and teething, but otherwise was fine when she put her in her crib one night in October 2009, then went to bed herself.

Paramedics were called after the girl was found, unresponsive, several hours later.

The girl had no history of falls, injuries or other illness, according to prosecutors, but doctors noticed bruises, retinal hemorrhaging and bleeding on her brain. She died several days later at the hospital.

Hepburn was tried alongside her boyfriend, who was home that night and, finding the girl unresponsive, brought her to Hepburn’s bedside.

At trial, Hepburn’s attorney conceded that prosecutors had proved that someone had fatally abused the girl but had not shown definitively that it had been the girl’s mother, and asked the judge to throw out the case.

The judge, according to the Supreme Court, denied that request, saying that “it could be logically deduced from the circumstantial evidence that one of the two defendants violently shook the victim causing her injuries.”

Hepburn testified that her boyfriend, Richard Lewis, was the only one awake when the girl was hurt and that her daughter feared him. In his defense, Lewis said Hepburn was stressed about not having gotten a job she wanted and that he had seen her hit an older child that night.

Jurors ultimately found Lewis guilty of aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse, and he was sentenced to serve seven years in prison. But earlier this year, the state Court of Appeals overturned that conviction, ruling that Lewis couldn’t have known that Hepburn was so angry she might seriously harm her daughter.

In its ruling Wednesday, the high court said that, without either defendant testifying against the other, prosecutors did not have enough evidence to continue their case against Hepburn.

“Homicide by child abuse cases are difficult to prove because often the only witnesses are the perpetrators of the crime,” the court wrote. “There is no evidence that Appellant herself was aware of the victim’s injuries, let alone caused them.”

Department of Corrections records show that Hepburn is currently being held at a women’s prison in Columbia. It was not immediately known when she might be moved from that facility, and her attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the court’s decision.

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