Mother imprisoned for burning girl

Cabassa, 21, receives sentence of 10 years

February 29, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A 21-year-old woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court for burning her 15-month-old daughter in a bathtub filled with scalding water and bleach.

Judge Lenore R. Gelfman called the crime one of the most brutal she has ever seen and then sentenced Mary V. Cabassa of Savage to a prison term that exceeded recommended guidelines by two years.

For the first time, Cabassa spoke in a courtroom, saying she never intended to harm her daughter, who suffered burns over 47 percent of her body. Cabassa, who maintains that her daughter fell into the tub on her own, also accused prosecutors of portraying her as a monster who never shed tears over her daughter's burns.

"I don't think this was supposed to be a battle over who cried the most," Cabassa said angrily.

Cabassa also said that she has agreed to let another family adopt her daughter, now 3, who is living with a foster family in North Laurel.

Howard County prosecutor Cindy L. Johnson recommended the tougher penalty, in part because she feared Cabassa might have other children and might harm them.

"It's a devastating case," Johnson said. "I believe Judge Gelfman gave a very appropriate sentence."

Cabassa's attorney called the sentence unfair and said he would appeal.

"I'm shocked," said Joseph Tauber, after his client was led away in handcuffs. "I know the judge had a tough decision to make, but I don't think this case warranted 10 years."

Yesterday was an emotional chapter in a case that has spanned more than two years and has seen two trials. The first resulted in a conviction for reckless endangerment and an acquittal on first-degree assault.

Jurors deadlocked on charges of child abuse and second-degree assault, but in October another jury convicted Cabassa on those counts. During both trials, testimony about the baby's wounds caused prosecutors, witnesses and court reporters to cry.

Prosecutors accused Cabassa of placing her daughter in her apartment's bathtub, which was filled with scalding water and bleach, for at least 15 to 25 seconds. The child, whose name is being withheld by The Sun, spent more than 100 days in the hospital and was required to wear a special suit that covered her entire body for another year.

She has permanent scarring on her side and back, and is still seeing doctors, her foster mother said.

Gelfman ruled yesterday that the water and bleach were weapons and boosted the sentencing guidelines from one to six years in prison to three to eight years. But Gelfman said that those guidelines were still not stiff enough and sentenced Cabassa to two extra years in prison.

Gelfman also asked prison officials to conduct a mental examination of Cabassa to see whether she could be housed at the Patuxent Institution, which offers mental health treatment.

"This case was one of the most brutal I've ever seen," Gelfman said. "Ms. Cabassa did not express any remorse."

A psychiatrist testified for Cabassa yesterday and said that the 21-year-old was abused when she was a child. She lived with abusive parents, the psychiatrist said, and was raised by grandparents and parents in several states. At one point, both her parents pointed handguns at each other during an argument, said the psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen McDaniel.

Cabassa's mother was having trouble raising her in Florida when Cabassa reached adolescence, the psychiatrist testified, and gave custody of her daughter to Florida officials.

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