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Murder trial begins for former Palm Harbor day care owner accused of shaking baby to death

Stephanie Spurgeon looks at potential jurors Tuesday as her trial begins in Largo.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Stephanie Spurgeon looks at potential jurors Tuesday as her trial begins in Largo.

LARGO — As the murder trial of Stephanie Spurgeon opened Tuesday, lawyers began their work by questioning dozens of people and selecting a jury.

But the key people in this case could be the doctors.

Spurgeon, 40, is a former Palm Harbor day care owner accused of killing a 1-year-old by shaking the girl to death.

But no one witnessed the child's injuries, and the fundamental science behind so-called "shaken baby syndrome" has come under attack in recent years. Even the name has been dropped by many medical professionals in favor of other terms such as "abusive head trauma."

This means the trial will likely become a battle of experts, with the prosecution's doctors blaming the death on Spurgeon and defense experts saying the child died from other causes.

The tone became clear earlier, during a pretrial interview, when a prosecutor asked Chicago physician Jan Leestma, "Is there anything else that you think I should know on this particular area of medicine?"

"Yeah," the doctor said. "Go to medical school. Do a residency and be in the field for 40 years."

That wasn't quite possible for the prosecutor and it won't be possible for jurors picked to decide this case. They will have to view pictures of the girl's brain and listen to complicated testimony about what killed her, and whether her injuries could have been incurred before she ever came to the day care.

On Tuesday, defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand reminded potential jurors they had all promised "that you can in fact presume her innocent. Is that accurate?"

They agreed.

The case dates to August 2008, when 1-year-old Maria Harris was dropped off at Spurgeon's in-home day care at 830 Edgehill Drive in Palm Harbor.

But when her mother arrived at the end of the day, Maria was unresponsive. The family called 911 and took the girl to the hospital, where she was treated for serious head injuries. She died eight days later.

Spurgeon initially was arrested on a charge of aggravated child abuse, and later was indicted on a first-degree murder charge.

In spite of that, some friends and supporters have stood strongly by her. In a court hearing later in 2008, some former clients said that in spite of the murder charge, they would still have trusted Spurgeon to look after their children.

Unlike many murder defendants, Spurgeon was allowed out of the Pinellas County Jail, on $350,000 bail. She remains free while attending the trial.

This case bears some similarities to another Pinellas case against a former St. Petersburg foster mother, Tenesia Brown. Brown also was charged with first-degree murder, after authorities said she shook a 14-month-old child. Her attorney was Ron Kurpiers, who now is representing Spurgeon. Brown was found not guilty in her 2010 trial, a relatively rare occurrence in a first-degree murder case.

The Spurgeon trial continues today and is expected to last into next week.

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

Murder trial begins for former Palm Harbor day care owner accused of shaking baby to death 02/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 7:56pm]
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