More than three years after the death of Bianca Cartagena, Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk will soon decide whether or not her mother is guilty of killing the 8-year-old girl.
Franczyk said Wednesday that he will issue a verdict Monday in the non-jury trial of Candace Croff Cartagena, the 35-year-old East Amherst woman accused of second-degree murder in the 2010 death of Bianca.
Relatives of the girl audibly wept in court Wednesday as Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty wrapped up his closing remarks by describing what the final violent moments of Bianca’s life must have been like.
Authorities contended that the girl died by homicidal asphyxiation – smothered or otherwise suffocated as she lay in her mother’s bed sometime on Nov. 29, 2010.
The act of killing someone by asphyxiation, Finnerty said, can take several minutes.
“You have to do it until the point of consciousness is lost, and then you have to keep going,” he told Franczyk.
Bianca, gasping for air to stay alive, might have called out for her mother to stop. Sheets were ripped from the corners of the bed, strands of Bianca’s long blonde hair were stuck in her mouth, a cover was half off one pillow, while another pillow was on the floor – all indications of a struggle, said Finnerty.
“The defendant had multiple opportunities to change her mind. She could have stopped. She could have decided to let Bianca live,” he said.
Finnerty spoke for about an hour, focusing mostly on what Cartagena did and said after the death of her daughter – words and actions that show consciousness of guilt and “prove her guilt beyond all doubt.”
Meanwhile, Cartagena’s defense attorney, Joseph J. Terranova, argued that the case hinged on expert testimony from three pathologists who offered varying interpretations about how Bianca died.
Terranova reiterated his criticism of the Erie County medical examiner at the time, Dr. Dianne R. Vertes, who has since retired.
Vertes initially listed the manner of Bianca’s death as undetermined on March 10, 2011, then changed it to homicide in a revised report issued Nov. 28, 2011.
“Dr. Vertes changed her opinion in a way that’s disturbing,” said Terranova, who suggested public pressure more than medical science led to the alteration.
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.
They also pushed for a second opinion on Vertes’ medical examination by Dr. Michael Sikirica, Rensselaer County’s chief medical examiner.
Vertes reviewed what Sikirica had found, then re-examined photos of Bianca from the death scene, seeing facial pallor around the nose and mouth area that she hadn’t noticed during the autopsy.
The pallor suggested a smothering force had been applied to the girl’s face, leading to the homicide finding.
But Terranova 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.
“On the one hand, prosecutors will have you believe there was a violent struggle,” said Terranova. “On the other hand, they’ve got virtually no physical findings that that took place. The proof just isn’t there.”
Terranova said that Arden, his expert witness, determined the cause of death as an undiagnosed heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy.
Prior to summations, Dr. Kim A. Collins, a third forensic pathologist testifying in the case, took the stand and 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 the condition mentioned by Arden, 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.
Dilated cardiomyopathy rarely results in sudden death in infants and toddlers, said Collins, who added that she had never heard of an undiagnosed 8-year-old child dying from the condition.
In his closing, Finnerty described Arden’s assessments as “biased, incomplete, unbelievable” and manufactured for the purposes of getting a paycheck.
But Terranova said Arden’s expert opinion was at least as valid as that of the other two pathologists.
“You’ve got three expert opinions and they’re all different, and if that doesn’t create reasonable doubt, I don’t know what does,” he said.
Finnerty went through a laundry list of Cartagena’s actions in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, all of which he said point to her guilt and efforts to escape culpability.
He pointed out “false” texts that Cartagena sent to relatives indicating she was with Bianca at places like the mall and the Strong Museum in Rochester, when in fact her daughter already was dead.
Prosecutors contended throughout that Cartagena was jealous, frustrated and angry because her daughter had chosen to spend Thanksgiving with her estranged husband, Ruben, and his girlfriend, and that Bianca planned to accompany them on a trip to Disney World.
“There was a ticking time bomb in this case, but it wasn’t the heart of Bianca Cartagena. It was this woman, this defendant,” Finnerty said, pointing to Candace Cartagena. “The person that should have been Bianca Cartagena’s caregiver, her mentor, her mother, was instead her murderer.”