Candace Cartagena faces a life prison term when she is sentenced today on her murder conviction for suffocating her 8-year-old daughter nearly four years ago in her Clarence home.
But Cartagena hopes that Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk will take into consideration her story – that she was incapable of intentionally suffocating her only child – and that the judge will show mercy.
Cartagena acknowledged in an Aug. 17 story in The Buffalo News that after trying to commit suicide by a drug overdose, she may have accidentally rolled on top of her napping daughter, triggering the girl’s asphyxiation and heart failure.
The 35-year-old defendant faces at least 15 years to life in prison and at most 25 years to life.
Franczyk convicted Cartagena of second-degree murder July 21 following a nonjury trial.
He found that she intentionally suffocated Bianca Cartagena 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.
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.
The defendant 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.
Cartagena did not testify at trial.
Casie Croff, her sister, testified against the defendant. She has notified the court that she intends to speak on behalf of Bianca at today’s sentencing.
Prosecutors 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.
The defense contended that Bianca died a natural death due to dilated cardiomyopathy – an enlarged heart.
Franczyk cited the testimony of Dr. Kim A. Collins, an expert pediatric forensic pathologist who testified for the prosecution, in countering the defense contention about the cause of death.
Franczyk said the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Jonathan L. Arden, saw clear evidence that Bianca died naturally as a result of dilated cardiomyopathy.
But Collins found she had an essentially normal heart that showed no signs of the heart disease.
The judge said the question was whether Bianca’s heart was so structurally and mechanically compromised as to cause her death suddenly without warning.
“In this court’s view, while Bianca’s heart may have been somewhat larger and heavier than normal, there is just no basis on this record to comfortably conclude that an otherwise healthy, active and asymptomatic 8-year-old child (whose heart looked normal on an X-ray 14 months earlier) would just keel over and die from DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy),” he said.
The judge cited several factors in concluding that Bianca’s death was due “not to DCM, but to a deprivation of oxygen, which was not accidental in origin.”
He noted the bursting of tiny blood vessels in her eye and eyelids, significant congestion of the thyroid, facial pallor indicating pressure had been applied around her nose and mouth, and evidence of a struggle in the bed where she was found.
“Based on the evidence, this court rejects the conclusion that Bianca Cartagena … just happened to die a natural death from a diseased heart on the very same day that her deeply troubled mother, in whose sole company she found herself, chose to take her own life,” Franczyk said.
The judge added that while it was not clear whether asphyxiation occurred by compression of the neck or abdomen and/or smothering, “what is clear to this court beyond a reasonable doubt is that Bianca Cartagena died from asphyxiation at the hands of her own mother.”
“Moreover, inasmuch as death by asphyxiation requires sustained pressure and blockage of the airways in the face of likely resistance, the only reasonable conclusion in this case is that her death was brought about intentionally,” Franczyk said.