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Palm Harbor day care owner gets 15 years in 1-year-old's death

A former Palm Harbor day care owner was sentenced to 15 years in prison Monday for the death of a year-old child who spent a single day in her care.

Just before Stephanie Spurgeon learned her fate, the relatives of baby Maria Harris urged Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Cynthia Newton to impose the 15-year maximum sentence.

"You killed my baby. Why, Stephanie?" Maria's mother Esther Harris said in a letter that was read aloud by a victim advocate standing next to her.

Maria's grandmother, Patricia Harris, said Spurgeon will still have the chance to visit with relatives, even in prison. But "we only . . . get to see blades of grass when we go to visit Maria," because she is in a cemetery.

"I beg this court to give this woman the maximum sentence possible," she said.

Spurgeon, 41, originally was charged with first-degree murder, but a jury in February found her guilty of manslaughter. Jurors deliberated for about 21 hours, which Judge Newton said was the longest of any case before her.

Defense attorneys during the trial pointed out that no one saw Spurgeon hurt Maria, and they presented evidence suggesting she died of natural medical conditions, not trauma.

But Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger said Monday that evidence proved Spurgeon "hurt this child in such a way that she tore her brain and made her eyes bleed."

Judge Newton said she received numerous letters of support for Spurgeon, but pointed out that the jury decided Spurgeon was guilty. State sentencing guidelines called for between 9.3 and 15 years in prison.

After the sentencing, Spurgeon's mother, Jan Knight, said there would be an appeal and that family members and friends still are firmly convinced of her daughter's innocence.

"In this case, justice did not prevail. I'm sorry," Knight said.

The case dates to August 2008, when Maria was dropped off at Spurgeon's home day care at 830 Edgehill Drive.

The baby's grandmother arrived at the end of the day to pick her up but noticed Maria was unresponsive. The family later called 911.

Maria died eight days later.

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

Palm Harbor day care owner gets 15 years in 1-year-old's death 08/20/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 20, 2012 11:21pm]

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