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Jury getting case of Palm Harbor day care owner accused of killing baby

LARGO — In the murder trial of former Palm Harbor day care owner Stephanie Spurgeon, defense attorney Ron Kurpiers hammered home a key point: No one saw her hurt the 1-year-old she is accused of killing.

"Not one witness testified that Stephanie Spurgeon committed a single violent act against Maria Harris," Kurpiers said during his closing argument on Tuesday. "Not one. No one saw it, no one heard it, no one witnessed it, not one."

But assistant state attorney Holly Grissinger fired back, telling jurors that doctors who examined Maria agreed the girl suffered traumatic injuries that caused severe damage.

And, she reminded jurors, Maria had been in good health at her 1-year checkup just days before going to Spurgeon's day care home, and that she seemed healthy before and even during the first part of her first day there.

But by the time Maria's grandmother picked her up that afternoon in August 2008, the girl was limp, and later practically lifeless.

"That injury to that child occurred in her (Spurgeon's) home," Grissinger said. "That makes her guilty of murder."

Today, jurors can decide if they agree. Attorneys finished their closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, and the case is scheduled to go to the jury this morning.

Prosecutors said Spurgeon was guilty of committing aggravated child abuse by throwing her against something soft — an act that was violent enough to severely harm her, but without causing external injuries such as bruises or cuts.

"When the defendant threw her down, whatever it was that set that off, she used enough force and enough trauma to that child to tear her brain and make her eyes bleed," Grissinger said.

Prosecutors said because Maria died as a result of that violent crime, Spurgeon is guilty under Florida law of first-degree murder. Grissinger said under this felony murder provision of the law, it is not necessary to prove Spurgeon planned to kill, something normally required for a first-degree murder conviction.

If the jurors do not find Spurgeon guilty of murder, they could convict her of manslaughter, or declare her not guilty.

Earlier in the trial, Maria's mother and grandmother described the girl as a somewhat spoiled child who fought naps and had to be rocked to sleep every night. And then in August 2008, Maria went to Spurgeon's day care for the first time.

Grandmother Patricia Harris picked Maria up from the day care in the afternoon. Spurgeon told her that Maria had gotten "p----- off" during naptime, assistant state attorney Brian Daniels said Tuesday. He ridiculed that idea.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a 1-year-old child does not get p----- off," Daniels said. Instead, Daniels said, "The person who got p----- off in this case was the defendant, Stephanie Spurgeon. When she couldn't get Maria to lay down … that's when she caused the injury to Maria Harris."

Then it was defense attorney Kurpiers' turn to ridicule, by challenging Daniels' statement.

"I say to you folks, where does that come from?" Pointing to the two prosecutors, Kurpiers said, "The only time that there's an accusation of physical harm (it) comes out of the mouths of these two people, not witnesses."

Slapping his palm into his fist and raising his voice, Kurpiers added, "This is first-degree murder, so they d--- well better come in with witnesses that say 'I saw something.' "

Because no one witnessed Maria getting hurt, attorneys on both sides relied heavily on often conflicting and always complex testimony from pathologists, brain experts, even a professor emeritus of physics. The state said Maria suffered from bleeding in the brain, swelling of the brain and bleeding in the eyes. Lawyers disagreed sharply on what all that testimony meant.

For the state, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin testified that Marie died from "blunt head trauma," and that it was a homicide. Dr. Sally Smith of the Pinellas County Child Protection Team said, "It was not accidental, it was an abusive injury."

But doctors called by the defense said they saw clotting that indicated the brain bleeding began several days before Maria ever came to the day care.

Then Thogmartin, called back by the state, said clots like the one they described could occur in patients who already have severe injuries. And generally such clots "don't kill the person, they are secondary."

Jury getting case of Palm Harbor day care owner accused of killing baby 02/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 8:04pm]
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