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A decade after baby's death, she wants to prove her innocence

Stephanie Spurgeon, 46, enters a Pinellas County courtroom on Wednesday before her evidentiary hearing. In 2008 she was convicted in the death of a toddler under her care who died from a brain hemorrhage that doctors said was inflicted by abuse. But the Innocence Project of Florida has challenged her conviction, saying new scientific studies show illness and other factors can also cause brain trauma in children, and not just abuse. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Stephanie Spurgeon, 46, enters a Pinellas County courtroom on Wednesday before her evidentiary hearing. In 2008 she was convicted in the death of a toddler under her care who died from a brain hemorrhage that doctors said was inflicted by abuse. But the Innocence Project of Florida has challenged her conviction, saying new scientific studies show illness and other factors can also cause brain trauma in children, and not just abuse. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 24, 2018

LARGO — A former day care owner who has spent five years in prison for the death of a 1-year-old girl was back in a Pinellas County courtroom on Wednesday to prove her innocence.

Stephanie Spurgeon, 46, is seeking a new trial thanks to a group of attorneys who work to overturn what they believe are wrongful convictions: The Innocence Project of Florida, the Exoneration Project, and the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

SEEKING RELIEF: Child abuse cases, like conviction of Palm Harbor day care owner, challenged by appeals lawyers nationwide.

The case revolves around the August 2008 death of Maria Harris, an infant who became unresponsive on a car ride back home after spending her very first day in Spurgeon's care. She died a week later from a brain hemorrhage.

Doctors said it was inflicted by abuse. Her day care worker, Spurgeon, a mother of two, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Her case is the latest in a string of child abuse convictions nationwide that are being reviewed in light of medical research that shows illness and other factors can cause brain lesions in children — not just abuse.

Spurgeon was found guilty of manslaughter after prosecutors argued at her trial that the girl's brain swelling could only have been caused by abuse.

But in this week's hearing, her defense attorneys plan to challenge that theory by presenting scientific testimony ranging from biomechanical engineering to clinical pathology.

In his opening statements, Innocence Project of Florida director Seth Miller said that Spurgeon's trial lawyer, Ronald Kurpiers, failed to present evidence that could have resulted in an acquittal.

Medical tests taken of Maria while she was hospitalized, Miller explained, showed that "she had a number of tell-tale signs of an undiagnosed diabetic crisis." Her blood glucose was more than four times the normal level and she had developed a blood clot in a vein at the top of her skull.

Dr. Michael Laposata, a pathologist who specializes in blood disorders, also testified that the clot formed about ten days before Maria was hospitalized. There was also no bruising on her scalp that could have indicated abuse.

"It was clear there's a likely misdiagnosis in the case," Laposata said. "In child abuse disorders, in my experience, there is more emotion in making a diagnosis than there is in other areas."

Also at issue, Miller said, is that Kurpiers based his defense on a typical shaken baby case, but the state's experts presented a different theory: The girl died from impact against a "soft surface," like a mattress.

Just before Spurgeon's trial, Kurpiers had won an acquittal for a woman charged in a similar child abuse case. The experts from that case were also called to Spurgeon's trial.

"Lots of attorneys have formulas or playbooks on how they approach cases," Miller said. "But they always need to be adjusted to every individual case."

Chris Van Ee, a Michigan biomechanical engineering expert whose research led to improvements in car airbag safety, testified that tests conducted on baby-sized dummies show that brain trauma like the kind Maria suffered cannot be caused by falling onto a mattress.

"You're at a level where we typically don't predict injury for a normal healthy child," he said.

Prosecutors did not make an opening statement on Wednesday.

The hearing will continue Thursday and likely wrap-up Friday. However, several more hearings will have to be held before the judge makes a decision.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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