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Law class discussion raises questions about day care operator's manslaughter conviction

It's normal for Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin to visit law classes and teach students how autopsies are used in murder cases.

It's not so normal for a law student to relay one of Thogmartin's comments to a defense attorney, who then uses said comment to seek a new trial for a woman convicted of manslaughter.

But that's what happened Friday when a judge delayed sentencing for Stephanie Spurgeon, a Palm Harbor woman who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a 1-year-old child.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Cynthia Newton also scheduled a June 25 hearing to investigate issues raised by the defense. Specifically, defense attorneys say they learned that Thogmartin thinks a 3½- or 4-year-old child could have caused injuries like the ones that killed 1-year-old Maria Harris, who died after her first day in Spurgeon's care.

A toddler about that age was believed to be in the home for part of the day.

Defense attorneys Ron Kurpiers and Bjorn Brunvand say that before the law student gave them that tip, they had never heard this opinion, which they say could prove their client is innocent.

"I was stunned that he would say that," Kurpiers said. They later spoke directly to Thogmartin.

But Thogmartin said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that his comments were being misrepresented. Yes, he did say it is "anatomically possible" for a child of that age to cause the type of injuries that killed Maria. However, he said he also added that "it does not fit the circumstances" of this case.

"The defense attorneys that represent Mrs. Spurgeon chose not to confer with me" before the trial, Thogmartin said. He added, "I do find it somewhat disgusting that the defense is now trying to pin this on a 3½-, 4-year-old kid when there is no evidence that is what happened."

Kurpiers said he's not trying to pin anything on anyone: "All we know is that Stephanie didn't do it." He said the decision not to sit down with Thogmartin for a pretrial interview was a tactical decision made for legal reasons, not an oversight.

The case dates back to August 2008, when Maria was dropped off at Spurgeon's home day care at 830 Edgehill Drive. When the baby's grandmother arrived at the end of the day to pick her up, Maria was unresponsive. The family called 911. Maria was treated for serious head injuries and died eight days later.

Spurgeon was charged with first-degree murder. This February, a jury convicted her instead of manslaughter.

It was shortly after that when Thogmartin came to the prosecution clinic class at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, where he made his comments.

It wasn't just the law student who heard the comments. The class' teachers are Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and one of his senior prosecutors, Fred Schaub. Both said they did not hear Thogmartin presenting new evidence that showed Spurgeon was innocent, and both said they would have disclosed any such information if he had.

Thogmartin said he expects he may be asked to testify at the June 25 hearing.

Attorneys also discussed the possibility that Brian Daniels, a recently retired prosecutor who worked on the case, could also be called as a witness, to see if Thogmartin talked to him about the possibility that a child could have caused the baby's injuries.

Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger, who prosecuted the case and handled Friday's court hearing, said no evidence was withheld from defense attorneys.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232.

Law class discussion raises questions about day care operator's manslaughter conviction 05/04/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 4, 2012 8:05pm]
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