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Pinellas daycare owner once convicted in baby’s death set free after guilty plea

Stephanie Spurgeon maintains her innocence in the death of 1-year-old Maria Harris. She pleaded guilty Friday to move on from the 13-year legal saga.
Stephanie Spurgeon is pictured before a hearing in 2019. She was set free on Friday after pleading guilty in the death of a 1-year-old girl at the Palm Harbor daycare she owned. She maintains her innocence.
Stephanie Spurgeon is pictured before a hearing in 2019. She was set free on Friday after pleading guilty in the death of a 1-year-old girl at the Palm Harbor daycare she owned. She maintains her innocence.
Published Oct. 15

On one end are a mother and grandmother who have spent 13 years seeking justice in the death of baby Maria Harris, a daughter and granddaughter who loved to laugh and eat chocolate cake.

On the other end is a daycare operator who a jury convicted in 2012 of killing the girl but who has maintained her innocence and seen her life upended by a crime her lawyers contend didn’t happen.

After more than a decade of court hearing after court hearing, and with a new trial looming next month, the parties came together one more time Friday.

Stephanie Spurgeon, who once ran a daycare out of her Palm Harbor home, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1-year-old Maria’s death. A judge sentenced her to time served, meaning she was free to go for the first time since her arrest in 2008. She planned to head straight to the beach, one of her attorneys said, to dip her feet in the water without worrying about damaging the ankle monitor she’d been living with.

Maria’s mother, Esther Harris, and grandmother, Patricia Harris, watched from the courtroom feeling mixed emotions but largely relieved by Spurgeon’s admission and the apparent end of a painful chapter.

“I’m just glad there’s justice for Maria,” Esther Harris, 30, said in an interview Friday. “It’s been 13 long, excruciating years, and then to finally have today to hear her plead guilty — it’s unbelievable that it came out of her.”

Maria Harris eating chocolate cake on her first birthday.
Maria Harris eating chocolate cake on her first birthday. [ Courtesy of Harris family ]

Where the truth lies is more complicated. Spurgeon’s plea came with a caveat, her lawyers said: She maintains her innocence and took the plea to end the case without risking another conviction and more prison time.

Spurgeon, 50, had served more than half of her 15-year sentence when, last summer, a Florida appeals court granted her a new trial because her trial lawyers didn’t adequately challenge the state’s case. The court’s opinion noted new testimony from two defense expert witnesses who said the state’s theory at trial was impossible. After the ruling, she was released on bail with the ankle monitor.

Related: Appeals court orders new trial in Pinellas baby death

“We’re thrilled for Stephanie that she gets to have freedom — full freedom — now,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida and one of Spurgeon’s attorneys. “Anyone in this position, who has already spent many years in prison and is facing more time in prison is going to react to that uncertainty by taking control of the situation and seeing if they can end the matter on their own terms.”

On Aug. 21, 2008, Patricia Harris dropped off Maria for her first day of daycare at Spurgeon’s home. When she picked her up later, the girl was sleeping. She never woke up. The girl’s family called 911 and took her to a hospital, where she spent about a week on life support. Doctors found that she had bleeding and swelling on her brain. Authorities charged Spurgeon with first-degree murder a few months later.

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At trial in 2012, prosecutors and their medical experts theorized that the injuries arose from being thrown repeatedly onto a soft surface, such as a mattress, according to a summary of the case in court records and Tampa Bay Times coverage of the trial. That explained why the girl had no external injuries.

Spurgeon’s defense attorneys suggested that an undiagnosed medical disorder had caused the bleeding and swelling. Their experts refuted that Maria’s injuries could have been caused by shaking the child. That was the state’s original theory, according to the appellate ruling, but wasn’t what they presented at trial.

Jurors deliberated for 21 hours before finding Spurgeon guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter. A judge sentenced her to 15 years in prison.

Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in 2012.
Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in 2012.

At a court hearing after her conviction, new attorneys for Spurgeon presented experts who refuted that the state’s “soft impact” theory could have caused the damage to Maria’s brain, an appellate court judge wrote in the ruling. That and medical records that supported the theory that an illness, not abuse, caused the damage disproved the state’s case, Spurgeon’s attorneys said in a statement Friday.

The statement specifically named one of the state’s experts: Dr. Sally Smith, a well-known board-certified child abuse pediatrician who advanced the “soft impact” theory. Smith has come under scrutiny in recent years from critics who say she’s too quick to diagnose child abuse, according to a 2019 USA Today Network investigation and Sarasota Herald Tribune reports.

Reached by phone Friday, Smith said she stood by her testimony.

“Many people — doctors, investigators, detectives, state attorneys — consider me an expert in child abuse pediatrics,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell you about defense attorneys and parents who thought they were wrongly accused who have attacked me extensively.”

Chief Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said his office remains confident in Smith’s opinion and maintains that Spurgeon was responsible for Maria’s death. The state supported Spurgeon’s plea after consulting with Maria’s family and determining that “closure at this time was best,” he said.

Esther and Patricia Harris concurred, thanking prosecutors for their work on the case. But, even after all this time, they’re not sure what closure looks like.

“Truthfully, how do you move on with these circumstances?” Patricia Harris said. “We don’t know how to move on.”