With new evidence, Pasco judge releases man awaiting trial in daughter's death

DADE CITY — After sitting in jail for more than two years accused of killing his young daughter, Jeffrey Spohn is home in time for Christmas.

Spohn, 35, had been held without bail on a first-degree murder charge stemming from the death of his daughter, Ryanne, in March 2007. He still must face trial on the charge, but Wednesday, Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa granted him a $50,000 bail after hearing that several doctors believe Ryanne's death could have been an accident.

Spohn was released from jail late Wednesday.

Spohn and his wife, Heather, adopted Ryanne, 18 months, and her sister Macie, who was 2, in November of 2006 from Kazakhstan. The parents underwent rigorous background checks before being allowed to adopt the girls, both of whom had health problems, including fainting spells and neurological problems that weren't fully diagnosed, Spohn's former attorney said.

The family lived in Seven Oaks in Wesley Chapel. On March 2, 2007, Jeff Spohn was home alone with the girls when Ryanne was rushed to the hospital unconscious. Spohn told investigators she had climbed up a baby gate and fallen backward off of it.

She had bleeding on the brain and died at University Community Hospital in Tampa after brain surgery. Macie was placed in the care of relatives, and the parents were allowed to have supervised visits with her. They moved to Ocala, where Jeff Spohn grew up, to be near her.

Eighteen months passed before a grand jury indicted Spohn for murder in November of 2008. A medical examiner, who first concluded Ryanne died of shaken baby syndrome, ultimately determined she died of blunt trauma to her head as a result of homicide.

Another doctor said the force needed to inflict the injuries she suffered was not consistent with her father's account that she fell.

But in asking for bail, Spohn's new attorney, Assistant Public Defender Tom Hanlon, presented starkly different opinions from other doctors and experts.

The neurosurgeon who operated on Ryanne said "even falling on carpeted floor could have caused injury."

Dr. William DeWeese, according to a police report, "stated with certainty and conviction the injuries were consistent with the explanation of the father."

Hanlon said Macie Spohn had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, which she contracted from her birth mother. Ryanne was too young to be tested, but DeWeese believed that condition made it impossible to stop her bleeding.

The radiologist who treated Ryanne noted that "the age of the blood is consistent with a single event." In most abuse cases, the doctor said, children have several bumps and injuries at different stages of healing.

Another pathologist who examined Ryanne's body at the family's request agreed that she died of head trauma but said it was caused by an accident, not homicide.

A psychologist who interviewed Jeff Spohn, who has no prior arrests, said he did not fit the profile of a child abuser.

None of that evidence was presented to the grand jury that indicted him or to a different judge who originally ordered Spohn be held without bail.

Judge Siracusa had first started the bail hearing in April, but it was continued until this week. At the first hearing, numerous friends and family testified that Spohn is a reliable and moral person. He served more than four years in the U.S. Navy before receiving an honorable discharge. At the time of Ryanne's death, he was working for Citi Financial in Tampa and was a youth sports coordinator for a local church.

"The family ties are strong. In four years of doing this, more people have shown up to support Mr. Spohn … than any other defendant," Siracusa said.

In setting the bail, he said, "the weight of the evidence against the defendant has shifted."

Spohn could not be reached Thursday.

Siracusa imposed several conditions as part of Spohn's release. He can't drink any alcohol. He cannot leave Florida. He had to surrender his passport.

He is not allowed to be around any children younger than 15 without supervision. And as for his older daughter, Macie, he's not allowed to see or contact her at all.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

With new evidence, Pasco judge releases man awaiting trial in daughter's death 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 10:07pm]

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