‘Heinous, atrocious or cruel’: Former prosecutor explains this revealing legal classification

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Three months after the body of 13-year-old Madeline Soto was found in a wooded area in St. Cloud, prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty for her murder.


Investigators said Stephan Sterns was dating Maddie’s mother when he killed the teen.

On Monday, the Orange Osceola State Attorney’s Office laid out the main reasons why Sterns should be on death row.

Prosecutors said they intended to prove Maddie’s murder was especially “heinous, atrocious or cruel.”

One former prosecutor told Channel 9 that it is an important and revealing legal classification.

Read: Madeline Soto case: State to seek death penalty against Stephan Sterns

“There’s lots of murder cases that happen every single day, a very small percentage of those are classified as death penalty cases. And an even smaller percentage of those are classified as heinous, atrocious and cruel, especially against a teenager,” said Ryan Vescio, a former prosecutor with the Orange Osceola State Attorney’s office.

Vescio served in the prosecutor’s office for nearly 15 years, trying multiple murder cases during that time.

While Maddie Soto’s autopsy has not been released and investigators have not shared exactly how they believe Maddie died, this classification reveals prosecutors believe it was especially horrific.

Read: Madeline Soto: Bodycam videos show Stephan Sterns’ 1st interactions with deputies

“Heinous, atrocious and cruel crimes normally involve torture,” said Vescio, “Madeline in this case, was either tortured, or the act that was committed was so vile and reprehensible that she knew that her death was coming about.”

On Monday, prosecutors also said they intended to prove three other factors:

  • The capital felony being committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, aggravated child abuse.
  • The victim being particularly vulnerable because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim.
  • The defendant 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.)

Read: Stephan Sterns charged with 1st-degree murder in Madeline Soto’s death

Sterns is also facing 60 charges, including Capital Sexual Battery, Lewd or Lascivious Molestation, and Unlawful Possession of Materials Depicting Sexual Performance by a Child.

Vescio also told Channel 9 if Sterns is convicted on his other crimes, he could be facing multiple mandatory life sentences in prison before jury selection would ever start in the death penalty case.

Sterns’ next court date is July 10.

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