Judge to announce verdict in Cartagena murder trial - The Buffalo News

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Judge to announce verdict in Cartagena murder trial

Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk this afternoon will announce his verdict in the case of Candace Croff Cartagena, who has been charged with murder in the death of her 8-year-old daughter more than three years ago in her East Amherst home.

The court session is set for 2 p.m.

Cartagena, 35, 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 she 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.

The 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.

Jonathan Arena of Rochester, a boyfriend whom Cartagena met in spring 2011 and started living with, testified that at one point she told him what happened Nov. 29 at her home.

Her mother dropped off Bianca after school, and Cartagena asked Bianca to spend the night because she wanted to see her before the child went on the trip to Disney World.

Bianca did her homework, and they watched television and played games. Cartagena became very depressed, took some pills and laid down in her bed with Bianca.

Cartagena was depressed over her marital and financial problems and wanted to end her life with Bianca at her side, the person who meant the most to her.

After waking up the next day and finding Bianca dead in the bed, she repeatedly took pills and awoke. Eventually she found herself on the living room couch downstairs. After vomiting, she changed her clothes and found that Bianca had been dead for some time. She took more pills and eventually was found in the shed.

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.

She 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.

Defense attorney Joseph J. 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.

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.

email: jstaas@buffnews.com

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