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Palm Harbor day care provider guilty of manslaughter in death of infant

Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. 
Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. 
Published Feb. 17, 2012

LARGO — After deliberating for 21 hours over two days, a jury found former Palm Harbor day care operator Stephanie Spurgeon guilty of manslaughter in the death of 1-year-old Maria Harris.

Spurgeon buried her face in her hands and slumped over on a desk as the verdict was read. She faces up to 15 years in prison and will be sentenced May 7.

The jury chose not to convict Spurgeon of first-degree murder, as she was charged. If they had, Spurgeon would have faced a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole.

Maria spent only one day in Spurgeon's day care home in August 2008. When her grandmother picked her up in the afternoon, Maria seemed limp and soon after, nearly lifeless. The girl was hospitalized but didn't get better. She was taken off life support a week later.

Maria's mother, grandmother and grandfather sat in the front row of the courtroom as the verdict was read. They did not react outwardly to the verdict.

"I am extremely impressed by the diligence of this jury," Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger said after the verdict. "They obviously thought long and hard about every aspect."

But Brent Hatley, a friend of Spurgeon's since they attended Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, had a different reaction: "In a word, injustice."

He called his friend "a pillar of the community" and said his research into shaken baby cases showed him "the state has this completely wrong."

Bjorn Brunvand, one of the defense attorneys, expressed disappointment in the outcome of the case. "I think there's reasonable doubt all over it," he said.

Reached by telephone after the verdict, several jurors declined to comment, including jury foreman David O. King.

It was a trial that showed the complexity of prosecuting a "shaken baby" case, even though prosecutors studiously avoided using that term.

No one saw Spurgeon harm Maria — a fact that her attorney, Ron Kurpiers, hammered away at during his closing argument. He also stressed that none of the doctors who testified in the case knew exactly what happened to cause the girl's death.

Prosecutors built a powerful circumstantial case against Spurgeon. Their witnesses showed that Maria was healthy and happy at her 1-year checkup just a few days before she went to Spurgeon's home day care. Maria also was described as a somewhat spoiled child, who fought nap time and had almost always been rocked to sleep.

Maria's grandmother, Patricia Harris, said the girl was fine in the morning. But by the afternoon, Maria was sleeping in an unusual position without her pacifier, which she had never done before.

After realizing she was unresponsive and would not wake up, family members rushed her to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with severe injuries, including bleeding in the brain.

In closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Brian Daniels attempted to tie all this together by saying that when Spurgeon "couldn't get Maria to lay down … that's when she caused the injury to Maria Harris."

Grissinger followed up, saying, "When the defendant threw (Maria) down, whatever it was that set that off, she used enough force and enough trauma to that child to tear her brain and make her eyes bleed."

But the case also relied heavily on medical evidence. Because no one saw Spurgeon actually hurt the child, this evidence was crucial for attorneys on both sides.

Opinions about that evidence were far from unanimous. The state's doctors said Maria suffered from bleeding in the brain, brain swelling and bleeding in the eyes. They described her injuries as taking place at or near the time that she was taken to the day care.

Doctors called by the defense saw it differently. Two pathologists, one from Chicago and one from Minnesota, said the girl's brain bleeding, called a subdural hematoma, began a couple of weeks before her one-day stay at Spurgeon's home. Another expert, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Florida, said a human could not muster the force to shake a 20-pound child with enough force to cause the type of physical damage that Maria suffered.

Although Spurgeon has been free on $350,000 bail, she was taken to the Pinellas County Jail on Thursday. She will remain there until her sentencing.

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.