Candace Cartagena was found guilty on second-degree murder today in the death of her 8-year-old daughter Bianca more than three years ago in her East Amherst home.
Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk read his verdict from the bench five days after listening to closing arguments in the nonjury trial. Cartagena, 35, will be sentenced at 2 p.m. Aug. 26.
Bianca’s father, Ruben Cartagena Jr., who suspected Candace all along, said after the sentencing nothing will bring back his daughter, but he has some closure.
Defense attorney Joseph J. Terranova said he will be appealing the verdict as soon as Cartagena is sentenced.
“She’s pretty distraught because we felt that with three medical examiners saying three essentially different things, that that created reasonable doubt,” Terranova said. “And, of course, cause of death and manner of death are the foundation of this type of case, so we thought that we had a good reason for acquittal and the judge didn’t agree, and that’s the way it works.”
Cartagena was accused of suffocating her daughter during a Nov. 29, 2010, visit at her home on Greengage Circle where she lived alone after her estranged husband moved out and Bianca went to live with her maternal grandparents in North Tonawanda because her mother could not take care of her.
After Cartagena failed to return the girl to the grandparents’ home the next day, Bianca’s grandfather and Cartagena’s sister found Bianca’s body in her mother’s bed and called police.
After examining the bedroom, police found Cartagena in a backyard shed, where, according to prosecutors, she pretended to be semiconscious at first but then awoke and answered their questions.
The defendant, who was taken to Erie County Medical Center, claimed that she had taken numerous pills in an attempt to kill herself because she was distraught over her ongoing divorce, prosecutors said. When police asked her if anything had happened to Bianca, she said she didn’t know because she had taken the pills. When police told her that Bianca was dead, Cartagena did not respond, prosecutors said.
Ruben Cartagena did not attend the trial because it was “too painful” but was present Monday for the verdict.
“A little bit of closure,” he said. “Like I said, nothing is going to bring back my daughter, but at least we know the killer is going to be in jail and off the streets.”
Ruben Cartagena was convinced since Bianca’s death that Cartagena was guilty, and he pushed – with the help of the Amherst Police Department – for her indictment for 2½ years.
“She was the only one in the house and my daughter was dead,” he said. “It was kind of a no-brainer that she had done it, with her anger and the way that she was.”
Dr. Dianne R. Vertes, the Erie County medical examiner at the time, ruled the cause of death as asphyxia but left the manner of death as undetermined in her March 2011 report, saying she could not exclude that it had been accidental.
But after conferring with a pathologist hired by the Amherst Police Department to review the autopsy and after studying photos of the victim in her mother’s bed at the death scene, Vertes ruled the death a homicide in her revised report Nov. 28, 2011.
Defense attorneys at the trial argued that Bianca died of natural causes.
Cartagena was indicted in May 2013. During the 2½ years between Bianca’s death and her mother’s indictment, family members called for her arrest and publicly criticized District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III for not moving more quickly to bring the case to a grand jury.
During Cartagena’s trial, prosecutors – Assistant District Attorneys Thomas M. Finnerty, Kristin A. St. Mary and Ashley M. Morgan – contended that Cartagena asphyxiated Bianca in a jealous rage because her daughter had chosen to spend Thanksgiving with her estranged husband, Ruben, and his girlfriend, and because Bianca planned to accompany them on a trip to Disney World.
Prosecutors said there were signs that Bianca had fought for her life that night in her mother’s bedroom. The bed was in severe disarray, the corners of the bottom fitted sheet were pulled off, pillows were strewn around the room, and a sheet was pulled over her body and scratched face.
Explaining her revised ruling of homicide in the case during testimony at the trial, Vertes cited the disarray of the bedding and Bianca’s clothing as indications that there had been a physical struggle.
She also cited the victim’s facial pallor, which she said suggested a smothering force had been applied to her face, nose and mouth, forcing the blood out of that area. She testified that the face’s pallor suggested that an object, possibly a pillow, had been placed over it.
She also testified that Bianca was a healthy, active child and gymnast, suggesting that she would have been able to fight her way out of asphyxiation unless intentional force was being applied.
Terranova, in his summation, argued that there was no evidence of smothering other than the pallor and a small amount of hemorrhaging on Bianca’s eyelids that another pathologist, Dr. Jonathan Arden of McLean, Va., noted could have been caused by many other factors.
Terranova said that Arden, his expert witness, determined the cause of death as an undiagnosed enlarged heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy.
However, Dr. Kim A. Collins, a forensic pathologist testifying for the prosecution, disputed Arden’s opinion. Collins blamed Bianca’s death on asphyxiation by head, neck or chest compression – with the possibility of smothering – and she determined the manner of death was homicide.
Collins also testified that dilated cardiomyopathy would only have been accompanied by many other symptoms, including coughing, edema in the extremities and trouble breathing.
A girl with dilated cardiomyopathy “would’ve been very poorly developed, small for her age,” said Collins, forensic pathologist at the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “She just would’ve been an unhealthy child.”
By all accounts, Bianca was an active, healthy child with no medical history, Finnerty pointed out in his summation.
Terranova said it was not a stretch for him to argue Bianca had died from dilated cardiomyopathy.
“When you’re defending someone, you’re looking for scientific evidence which is persuasive,” Terranova said. “That’s what we did, and I stand by that.”
Terranova believes Finnerty “crossed the line into prosecutorial misconduct,” but maintained that he believes this case was best suited for a judge’s decision rather than that of a jury. He praised Franczyk after the ruling was handed down.
“Judge Franczyk is a very conscientious, careful, and thinking judge,” Terranova said. “I know he gave a great deal of thought to this case.”