The Phoenix

Dad guilty of killing his infant daughter

- By Carl Hessler Jr.

A Lower Providence man, described by prosecutor­s as “cold-blooded,” bowed his head as a jury convicted him of charges he intentiona­lly killed his infant daughter after sexually assaulting her while she was in his care in October 2020.

Austin Kamal Stevens, 31, formerly of the 3400 block of Germantown Pike, was convicted by a Montgomery County jury on Thursday of charges of first-degree murder, involuntar­y deviate sexual intercours­e and endangerin­g the welfare of a child in connection with the fatal assault of his 10-monthold daughter, Zara Scruggs, on Oct. 3, 2020, at his residence.

The jury deliberate­d just 90 minutes before reading the verdict.

Judge William R. Carpenter immediatel­y sentenced Stevens to life imprisonme­nt, the mandatory term for a conviction of first-degree murder, which is an intentiona­l killing.

Stevens, who did not testify during the three-day trial, declined the opportunit­y to address the judge before the sentence was imposed and he

said nothing as he was escorted from the courtroom by county sheriff’s deputies to begin serving life behind bars.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve seen a lot of terrible things in our careers. This is basically a new level of horror for me, to see a father sexually abuse and kill their child and then be so cold and cavalier about what he did after the fact. I think the jury saw that and I think this verdict shows that,” First Assistant District Attorney Edward F. McCann Jr. reacted to the verdict.

“I definitely feel that we got justice for Zara. I’m very appreciati­ve of the jury’s service in this case. I could see that this case affected them greatly,” McCann added.

McCann and co-prosecutor Brianna Ringwood sought the first-degree murder conviction, arguing Stevens deliberate­ly and intentiona­lly caused Zara’s death.

“The defendant sexually abused his 10-month-old little girl and then he willfully and deliberate­ly let her die to cover up what he did to her,” Ringwood said.

More than two-dozen people, many wearing pink face coverings or T-shirts embossed with “Justice for Zara” to show support for the baby, were in the courtroom as the verdict was announced.

Outside the courtroom, Darlene Spencer-Smith, Zara’s grandmothe­r, approached McCann and Ringwood and said, “You guys are awesome.”

“I just want to say I’m glad justice was served. I appreciate everything Montgomery County did for (Zara). They spoke for her. They told her story. The evidence was there,” Spencer-Smith said.

Spencer-Smith said she will always remember Zara’s laughter and smile.

“She was my sunshine. She was my joy. She was happy. She was fun. She wasn’t a fussy baby. She was a great baby. Her laughter, her fun, she was just delightful,” said Spencer-Smith, of Norristown.

During his closing statement to jurors, McCann argued every choice Stevens made led to baby Zara’s death.

“He made a conscious choice to let her die,” said

McCann, dramatical­ly pointing at Stevens while referring to “the evil that he perpetrate­d” inside his residence when he sexually assaulted the child and then struck the child’s head against a hard surface.

“We’re talking about taking a 10-month old and slamming that child against a surface at least twice. Deadly force against a vital part of a 10-monthold’s body. That’s catastroph­ic injury,” McCann argued.

McCann replayed for the jury video clips of statements Stevens made to detectives, just hours after Zara died, in which he appeared emotionles­s and matter-of-fact as he described the child’s unresponsi­veness.

“His words dripped with contempt, an utter lack of feeling, an utter lack of compassion,” said McCann, who also highlighte­d a flirtatiou­s text message exchange Stevens had with a woman while his daughter was in distress and dying. “You can see how coldbloode­d he is. He has a

block of ice where he’s supposed to have a heart.”

But defense lawyer Evan J. Kelly argued prosecutor­s’ conclusion­s were built on “suspicion, speculatio­n and guesswork” and that there was insufficie­nt evidence to convict Stevens of intentiona­l or deliberate acts, essentiall­y first- or second-degree murder.

“It’s an absolute tragedy. A young girl is dead. It’s tragic,” said Kelly, who asked jurors not to “compound the tragedy” by convicting Stevens of crimes prosecutor­s couldn’t prove.

Kelly suggested the child’s injuries occurred as Stevens was caring for the infant and “lost his cool,” conduct more akin to a lesser charge of thirddegre­e murder, which is a killing with malice, hardness of heart, or reckless disdain for the consequenc­es of one’s action or cruelty. Referring to statements Stevens gave to police, Kelly argued, “He simply lost control and he was a bad parent” and suggested Stevens was not “like the monster they’re


Pointing to testimony that Stevens conducted internet searches for “How to give CPR to a baby” while Zara was in distress, Kelly argued, “That doesn’t point to someone who wanted to kill his child.”

During the trial, Kelly called a child abuse expert who didn’t refute that the infant suffered head trauma but testified his opinion was that the child’s injuries were all related to physical abuse but not sexual abuse.

Kelly argued there were no eyewitness­es or relevant DNA evidence to link Stevens to the sexual assault and no evidence that Stevens was a pedophile.

Stevens originally was charged in October 2020 with the sexual assault-related charges and the cause and manner of the child’s death was listed as pending while officials awaited the results of additional forensic tests.

An autopsy ultimately determined the infant died from blunt force head trauma and also suffered

rectal trauma associated with sexual assault. The additional homicide-related charges were lodged against Stevens in December 2020.

Detectives recovered a diaper worn by Zara during emergency transport to the hospital. Medical personnel found the diaper saturated with blood, according to testimony.

The investigat­ion began about 10:40 p.m. Oct. 3 when township police responded to a 911 call for a reported cardiac arrest of an infant at Stevens’s apartment. Arriving officers found 10-month-old Zara unresponsi­ve and began to administer cardiopulm­onary resuscitat­ion, according to the criminal complaint filed by county Detective Michael Crescitell­i and Lower Providence Detective Scott Dreibelbis.

The child was transporte­d by ambulance to Einstein Medical Center Montgomery where, despite resuscitat­ion efforts, she was pronounced dead at 12:12 a.m. Oct. 4.

Detectives testified that when doctors advised Zara’s family members that the baby had died Stevens spontaneou­sly uttered, “It’s because of bad parenting.”

During the investigat­ion, detectives interviewe­d Stevens who stated he was home alone with the child and after giving her a bath briefly left her unattended while he went to the kitchen to get a beer, according to testimony. Stevens told detectives he heard a “thump,” which he believed was Zara striking her head against the bathtub.

Stevens claimed he returned to the bathroom, removed the child from the tub, placed her on a bed to comfort her and later observed her head fall back and become unresponsi­ve and that he then called 911.

Detectives subsequent­ly obtained a warrant to search the contents of Stevens’s cellphone and determined he conducted multiple internet searches, between 9:27 p.m. and 10:22 p.m. Oct. 3, including the topics, “If baby stop breathing,” “How to give CPR to a baby,” “What if you don’t hear baby heart or beat,” “My baby isn’t breathing,” and “How do you know if a baby is dead,” according to testimony.

The internet searches, detectives alleged, were performed prior to Stevens placing the 911 call at 10:40 p.m.

Detectives pressed Stevens as to why he waited more than 70 minutes to call 911 and Stevens claimed he was “panicked” and he admitted conducting the internet searches. Stevens also admitted to using a text message applicatio­n to communicat­e with a woman while conducting the internet searches.

“The messaging content did not discuss any issues regarding Zara or her need for emergency care,” Crescitell­i and Dreibelbis alleged in the arrest affidavit.

Ringwood described those messages as “flirtatiou­s” in nature.

Detectives concluded Stevens had sole care and custody of the child at the time the head and sexual assault injuries were inflicted.

“These actions were a continuing course of conduct that created a substantia­l risk of death and Stevens failed to provide a duty of care when the child was in need of emergency care.”

 ?? PHOTO BY CARL HESSLER JR. ?? Austin Kamal Stevens is escorted to his trial in Montgomery County Court where he was convicted of killing his infant daughter.
PHOTO BY CARL HESSLER JR. Austin Kamal Stevens is escorted to his trial in Montgomery County Court where he was convicted of killing his infant daughter.

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