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Grandmother, mother testify about death of 1-year-old in Palm Harbor murder case

LARGO — The first time 1-year-old Maria Harris went to a Palm Harbor day care home, her grandmother Patricia immediately noticed something wrong.

Maria was lying face-down and motionless at the end of the day, without a pacifier in her mouth — even though she always slept on her back, always with a pacifier.

The day care owner explained that Maria must have gotten tired after playing hard with other tots.

So Patricia Harris didn't worry much until 15 minutes later, when she was taking her grandchild home, heard coughing and gurgling and reached into the car seat.

The girl was completely limp, her head almost in her lap. "And I screamed, 'Maria, what's wrong with you?' "

Testifying at the murder trial of the caregiver Wednesday, the grandmother recalled that at that moment in August 2008, "I ran to the door hollering all the way, 'Esther, open that door now, please!' "

Inside the house, she and Esther Harris, the child's mother, frantically tried to revive Maria and called 911, saying, "Hurry. This baby's in trouble; she needs help."

But there was no helping Maria. Eight days later, life support was withdrawn.

And this week Stephanie Spurgeon, 40, who operated the day care center in her Palm Harbor home, is on trial for first-degree murder.

Attorneys gave their opening statements Wednesday, providing two different scenarios of Maria's death.

Assistant State Attorney Brian Daniels said, and a doctor testified, that Maria was in good health at her one-year checkup just days before she was brought to the day care, but unresponsive when picked up from the home.

Defense attorney Ron Kurpiers said the case would involve "complicated, detailed, specific medical testimony" that would sometimes be challenging to follow. But he also said that among all the people who would testify in the case, no one "saw or heard or witnessed Stephanie Spurgeon harm Maria Harris. Not one."

Although evaluations would later show that Maria suffered a subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhaging, Kurpiers said doctors would testify that there are other possible explanations that are "completely unrelated to trauma." Kurpiers said prosecutors would be unable to prove "that Miss Spurgeon had any responsibility in causing what happened to that child."

Maria's mother, who is now 21, testified that she was home when her mother returned from the day care with the girl. "My mother, she beat on the door and she asked me to hurry up, something's wrong."

As the grandmother came in with the baby, "I saw Maria very limp; it was almost like a bag of rice," Esther Harris said. "I begged her to wake up, but she would never wake up."

The grandmother also testified that she had somewhat "spoiled" Maria, meaning the girl never went to sleep unless someone gave her a pacifier and rocked her to sleep. Otherwise, the girl cried, fussed and fought sleep.

Numerous doctors have been listed as witnesses in the trial, which is expected to continue into next week.

"This is going to be a battle of experts and a battle of doctors," said defense attorney Kurpiers.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@tampabay.com. To submit a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Grandmother, mother testify about death of 1-year-old in Palm Harbor murder case 02/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 7:55pm]
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