Candace Cartagena was sentenced Tuesday to the maximum prison term of 25 years to life for intentionally suffocating her 8-year-old daughter nearly four years ago in her East Amherst home.
Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk rejected her claim that she accidentally suffocated Bianca Cartagena when she rolled on top of her napping daughter after taking pills in a failed attempt to kill herself because of her financial and marital problems.
“All the doctors who testified in the case agreed it was not an accidental death,” the judge told the 35-year-old defendant.
Franczyk noted that Cartagena also claimed that she was the one who was supposed to die when she took the pills, then laid down next to the napping Bianca in her bed.
“Who would do that without considering the effect on an 8-year-old child” when she awoke and found her dead mother next to her? he asked Cartagena.
The judge said the incident was evidence of her selfishness.
“If you were really serious about committing suicide,” he said, “you would have done it without drama and fanfare and without involving the person you loved the most.”
The judge also addressed concerns raised by Cartagena’s attorney, Joseph J. Terranova, about the cause of death.
“This was a very close case,” Terranova told Franczyk before he imposed sentence.
In deciding on the length of the sentence, the defense attorney urged the judge to consider the possibility he might be wrong about the cause of death.
He suggested that a sentence of 19 or 20 years to life might be more appropriate, given a disagreement between prosecution and defense medical witnesses on the cause of death.
In convicting Cartagena last month of second-degree murder following a nonjury trial, Franczyk rejected the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Joseph Arden, who saw clear evidence that Bianca died naturally as a result of dilated cardiomyopathy – an enlarged heart.
But the prosecution expert, Dr. Kim A. Collins, found she had an essentially normal heart that showed no signs of the heart disease.
The judge agreed, noting that the evidence showed she was a healthy, active child whose heart looked normal on an X-ray 14 months before she died.
The judge cited several factors in concluding that Bianca’s death was due not to an enlarged heart, “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.
At sentencing, Franczyk said he always wonders if he might be wrong in reaching a verdict and imposing sentence.
“But I stand by the conclusion I reached” in this case, he said. “If I’m wrong, the Appellate Division will tell me so.”
He gave Cartagena the maximum sentence, “based on my belief that you asphyxiated your daughter.”
Before sentencing, the judge heard from Cartagena’s sister, who along with her stepfather found Bianca’s body on Nov. 30. 2010, the day after she died during a visit to Cartagena’s home on Greengage Circle.
Casie Croff Lamarca told the judge that her family, who took care of Bianca after Cartagena’s husband moved out and Bianca moved in with her maternal grandparents in North Tonawanda, misses Bianca every day and that they find it difficult to get out of their minds the images of Bianca’s body in Cartagena’s bed.
Nevertheless, she said the family still loves Cartagena, who was found by police that same night in an allegedly semiconscious state in a shed behind her home after taking pills. “Our love for her has not changed,” she said.
But she said her sister’s actions carry consequences. While she said she would never recommend the maximum sentence, she hopes that some limited time in prison with counseling will help her.
Cartagena told the judge that she was not going to make excuses for her actions and was not going to bad mouth people during her statement before sentencing.
But she said she was not going to admit that she intentionally killed Bianca.
“Being a mother was the greatest thing in my life,” she said.
For the next 10 minutes amid tears, she described some of the memories she has of Bianca from her birth through her school years: the family going to Wiggles concerts and ice shows, her preschool graduation, her first day of kindergarten, Halloween festivities and trips to Niagara Falls.
“This isn’t about me,” she said. “It’s my memories of Bianca.”
Cartagena admitted she made some terrible choices after her husband moved out. She said she became selfish, thinking only about herself after so many years of thinking about others.
She said she was sad to see her family falling apart, but Bianca told her not to cry, assuring her mother that everything would turn out OK.
She apologized to her family, including her mother and stepfather, who also were in the courtroom with her sister.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” she told them. “I accept responsibility for what I did by lying and stealing. I’ll never forgive myself.”
She added that she would go to prison and do what she could to make her family proud of her.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorneys Kristin A. St. Mary and Ashley M. Morgan, asked the judge for the maximum sentence.
He cited the heinous nature of the crime, Bianca’s vulnerability, the mother-child relationship, Cartagena’s overwhelming guilt and her lack of remorse and failure to accept responsibility for what she did.
He said murder by asphyxiation is especially grievous because it involves a slow and violent death. He noted that the prosecution medical expert called it a form of torture.
He said Cartagena should have nurtured her child, not killed her.
He told the judge she blames everyone except herself for Bianca’s death.
“In my 20 years as a prosecutor, I have never encountered anybody more narcissistic,” he said, adding that she is concerned about only herself.
After sentencing, Terranova told reporters outside the courtroom that the sentence was expected. He said he would file a notice of appeal. “I trust that this is not the last word in the case,” he said.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said the sentence was just. “She committed a particularly heinous crime,” he said.
He also said prosecutors had talked to the Cartagena family and the family wanted the maximum sentence.