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Appeals court orders new trial in Pinellas baby death

Stephanie Spurgeon, a former day care operator, was convicted of manslaughter in the 2008 death of a 1-year-old girl. New medical testimony has cast doubt on her guilt.

An appeals court has ordered a new trial for a former Palm Harbor day care owner who says she is innocent in the 2008 death of a baby girl.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that Stephanie Spurgeon should receive a new trial because her original lawyers failed to adequately challenge the state’s case. The judges noted new expert testimony that refutes the state’s theory that the girl’s death was the result of abuse.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project of Florida and other groups have worked for years to exonerate Spurgeon.

“It’s a rare thing when an appellate court overturns a conviction after the effort to overturn has been denied by a trial court,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. “I think it speaks to the strength of the arguments supporting Stephanie Spurgeon’s innocence.”

A Pinellas County jury in 2012 found Spurgeon guilty of a manslaughter in the death of 1-year-old Maria Harris. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter in her trial. [Times (2012)]
Stephanie Spurgeon reacts to the jury finding her guilty of manslaughter in her trial. [Times (2012)]

Her trial hinged on differing medical opinions about what caused the girl to suffer bleeding and swelling on her brain. Prosecutors told a jury that the injuries were the result of an impact with a soft surface, like a mattress. The defense argued that the girl died from an undiagnosed metabolic disorder.

Spurgeon had been a licensed childcare provider for 15 years when she was accused of causing the child’s death. She ran a day care service out of her home.

Maria’s family brought the girl there on Aug. 21, 2008. Late that afternoon, Maria’s grandmother picked her up. The baby was asleep when she arrived. When the grandmother later arrived home, she found Maria unresponsive and noticed that she had vomited.

The girl was taken to a hospital. Doctors found that she had swelling and bleeding on her brain. They also discovered that she had been having seizures, and had bleeding on her retinas and elevated blood sugar levels.

She died Aug. 28, 2008, when she was taken off life support. Several months later, authorities charged Spurgeon with first-degree murder.

In her trial, prosecutors theorized that the child died from being thrown onto a soft surface. Medical experts testified that such a repetitive “soft impact” could have caused the brain swelling, which ultimately led to the death.

The defense questioned three of their own medical experts, and advanced the theory that the child’s injuries were the result of a medical disorder and occurred before she was in Spurgeon’s care, according to a summary of the case that was part of the appellate opinion. They also sought to demonstrate that the injuries could not have been caused by shaking the child, even though prosecutors did not argue that the death was the result of shaking, the judges noted.

The jury deliberated for about 21 hours before finding Spurgeon guilty of manslaughter.

Part of her argument for a new trial had to do with her defense’s failure to rebut the state’s “soft impact” theory. A 2018 court hearing included testimony from two experts in biomechanics, who said that it would have been impossible for the injuries to have resulted from an impact with a soft surface. The level of force required would have also caused external injuries on the child’s body, the doctors said.

“The testimony of a biomechanics expert regarding the infeasibility of the soft impact theory could have created reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors,” Appellate Judge Anthony Black wrote in the opinion, in which he was joined by Judges Stevan Northcutt and Andrea Teves Smith.

The judges sent the case back to Pinellas-Pasco circuit court.

Spurgeon, 49, has already completed the majority of the 15-year prison sentence she received, according to records of the Florida Department of Corrections. Her release date is set for 2024. She is listed as being on minimum security at Hernando Correctional Institution in Brooksville.