State seeking death penalty against Stephan Sterns in murder of 13-year-old Madeline Soto

The State Attorney’s Office announced on Monday that it will be seeking the death penalty against Stephan Sterns, the man accused of murdering 13-year-old Madeline Soto.

On February 26, 2024, Jennifer Soto (Madeline’s mother) contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to report Madeline missing after she failed to show up for school.

During an investigation into Madeline’s disappearance, the Kissimmee Police Department found several “disturbing pictures and videos” on a phone belonging to Jennifer’s boyfriend, 37-year-old Stephan Sterns.

KPD officers arrested Sterns on February 28, 2024. He is facing 60 charges including sexual battery on a child under 12, sexual battery with a child between the ages of 12 to 18 (familial/custodial authority), lewd or lascivious molestation, and unlawful possession of materials depicting sexual performance by a child.

Since his arrest, Sterns has been held at the Osceola Department of Corrections without bond.

On March 1, 2024, four days after Madeline disappeared, her body was found in a wooded area in Osceola County.

Sterns became a suspect in Madeline’s homicide. On April 24, 2024, he was indicted by an Osceola County grand jury on a first-degree murder charge.

State Attorney Andrew Bain released the following statement after Sterns’ indictment:

“Building a strong criminal case requires working closely with law enforcement and our office began working with deputies and Kissimmee Police in the very early stages of this investigation. Over the past nearly eight weeks, we have collaborated with our law enforcement partners to collect and review a tremendous amount of evidence and information.

“Extensive death investigations can typically take six weeks or longer but because of the solid policework and work of the prosecutors assigned to the case, we were successful in presenting this case to the grand jury in a relatively short time and securing a First Degree Murder indictment. Madeline deserves justice and our office will do everything legally possible to ensure the defendant is held accountable for his actions and the community and Madeline’s family receive closure.”

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

On June 9, 2024, the State Attorney’s Office stated in a media release that its decision to seek the death penalty in this case “is based on several aggravating factors the State intends to prove.” Those factors include:

  • The capital felony being committed while Sterns was allegedly engaged in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, aggravated child abuse.
  • The victim being particularly vulnerable because Sterns stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim.
  • The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.
  • Sterns was previously convicted of another capital felony or a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person. (The current sex charges against Sterns will serve as priors if he is convicted.)

Sterns is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial hearing on July 10, 2024. His trial is scheduled to begin the following week, according to Osceola County Court records.

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