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

Stephanie Spurgeon reacts as a Pinellas jury finds her guilty of manslaughter. Maria Harris, 1, died of brain hemorrhage and swelling after spending one day at Spurgeon’s Palm Harbor day care.
Stephanie Spurgeon reacts as a Pinellas jury finds her guilty of manslaughter. Maria Harris, 1, died of brain hemorrhage and swelling after spending one day at Spurgeon’s Palm Harbor day care.
Published July 5, 2017

Maria Harris was just a year old when she fell asleep at her new day care and never woke up.

It was Aug. 21, 2008. She died eight days later from a brain hemorrhage that doctors said was inflicted by abuse. Her day care worker, Stephanie Spurgeon, was convicted of manslaughter. The mother of two was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Now Spurgeon wants a new trial. Her appellate lawyers will argue that the forensic science that convinced a jury of her guilt is wrong.

Maria likely died from a medical condition, they argue, not from physical injuries.

Attorneys and scientists alike are challenging forensic science such as bite-mark evidence, hair analysis and latent fingerprints that law enforcement and prosecutors have long relied on to convict defendants.

Spurgeon's case is part of a handful of child abuse cases being challenged nationwide in light of medical research that shows illness and other factors can also cause brain trauma in children, and not just abuse.

"We've learned a lot even in the last decade," said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project who is representing Spurgeon. "We have no doubt that this is a miscarriage of justice."

• • •

It was once called shaken baby syndrome: abusive head trauma that occurs when a baby is shaken or handled violently, resulting in severe brain injuries.

But what, appellate attorneys are now asking the courts, if those same injuries could have been caused by an accident? Or perhaps undiagnosed illnesses such as diabetes? They argue that new medical studies show that's a possibility.

"We're often accused of being on the side of child abusers," said Katherine Judson, litigation coordinator with the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

But in many such cases, she said, there is "very powerful evidence of innocence."

That's why appeals like Spurgeon's have emerged as post-conviction lawyers raise concerns about outdated science used in old trials. She is being represented by the Innocence Project of Florida, the Exoneration Project and the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Spurgeon's isn't the first abusive head trauma case to be challenged in Tampa Bay.

In 2002, Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors dropped a murder charge against David Raymond Long of Holiday after the new medical examiner, Dr. Jon Thogmartin, determined his 7-month-old daughter died from pneumonia.

That same year, John Peel of St. Petersburg, convicted of killing his 8-week-old son, was freed from prison after another review of the baby's autopsy found no evidence of abuse.

At least eight other similar cases have been overturned across the country in the past decade, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Appeals of such cases face several hurdles, said Judson, who specializes in abusive head trauma cases. They are often fraught with emotion and can involve complicated science that is difficult to untangle in court.

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"They're very, very challenging for lawyers," she said. "We're not doctors."

She added: "We're really committed, all of us, to making sure good forensic science is what makes it into the courtroom."

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Debbie Feinstein, chief of the special victims division in Montgomery County, Md., said there may be wrongful child abuse convictions out there, but it's not because the forensic science is bad.

"Abusive head trauma has been given a bad rep," said Feinstein, who has taught courses about this subject to prosecutors. "I would say there is a campaign of misinformation that has been propagated by certain experts around the country."

• • •

Court records detail the 2008 case against Spurgeon:

It was 7 a.m. when Patricia Harris, Maria's grandmother, took her to a house in Palm Harbor. It was Maria's first day in Spurgeon's in-home day care.

In phone calls that day, Spurgeon told Maria's family that she ate cereal in the morning and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. She played with other kids, but wouldn't nap. Eventually, Maria fell asleep after Spurgeon patted her back a few times.

When Harris picked up her granddaughter, the girl was asleep.

Fifteen minutes later when they arrived home, Harris turned around and saw the baby slumped over, her head almost lying in her lap. The family called 911.

Eight days later, Maria was dead. Doctors said she died from brain hemorrhage and swelling.

Spurgeon, whose children were ages 12 and 14 at the time, was charged with first-degree murder. During her 2012 trial, experts for the state said the girl's injuries were caused by impact against a "soft surface," like a mattress.

Her attorneys told the jury she was innocent. The defense pointed to the girl's high glucose levels as the real culprit. But the state argued that Maria wasn't sick. If she was, that would have been revealed in a routine medical screening she underwent as a baby.

It took the jury 21 hours to find Spurgeon guilty of manslaughter. Maria's family asked Circuit Judge Cynthia Newton to sentence her to the maximum: 15 years in prison.

At sentencing, a victim's advocate read a letter from Maria's mother, Esther Harris.

"I can only hope when you're in prison, you will think long and hard about what you did, this monstrous thing to Maria," the mother wrote. "What did she really do to deserve this?"

• • •

In 2015, Spurgeon's lawyers requested a new hearing in her case.

In their motion, lawyers made two points. First, Spurgeon's trial lawyers based their 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.

A biomedical engineering expert, their motion said, recently concluded it's unlikely that pushing a child onto a "soft surface" could result in brain bleeding. Maria also didn't have any visible marks or bruises that could be signs of abuse, Tepfer said.

Second, Maria's high glucose levels at the hospital could have been signs of an untreated illness, like diabetes.

"We have some clear indications from medical records that this child might have some metabolic disorder," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

In its response, prosecutors cited trial transcripts that showed Spurgeon's defense did challenge the state's theory in 2012. They also told the jury Maria likely had an illness.

"Our position on this is that all of this stuff was already dealt with in the original trial," said Sara Macks, division director of appeals at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. "The victim's family is pretty upset about it. Any time they have to relive something, specifically the death of a young child, that's always really, really rough."

Maria's family could not be reached for comment.

Last year, Circuit Judge William Burgess III granted Spurgeon a hearing, where her lawyers will argue that she should be granted a new trial. The hearing is set for January.

At the Hernando Correctional Institution in Brooksville, Spurgeon, 46, awaits her day in court. She became a certified law clerk while in prison and helps other prisoners with their cases. She is set to be freed in 2025.

"While I believe that justice should be served by those who commit crimes," she wrote to a judge, "I also believe that there are many who are wrongfully convicted."

Her childhood friend, Ginger Touchton of Seminole, visits her every month. She described Spurgeon as a devoted and patient mother who ran a day care for years.

Spurgeon was "over the moon" when she was granted a new hearing.

But then Touchton said: "The actual reality sets in, that even though the Innocence Project has her case, it's still going to be a long road."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.