A 21-year-old woman was convicted in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday of child abuse and assault in the 1997 burning of her daughter in a bathtub filled with scalding water and bleach at their apartment in Savage.
The jury's verdict ended a lengthy and emotional prosecution of Mary V. Cabassa that took two trials and, at times, had witnesses, lawyers, spectators and a court reporter in tears. During the first trial last year, Cabassa was convicted of reckless endangerment and acquitted of first-degree assault, but jurors deadlocked on child abuse and second-degree assault charges.
In February, Cabassa pleaded guilty to child abuse and second-degree assault under an agreement reached with prosecutors. But Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman voided that plea after Cabassa did not meet pre-sentence probation requirements.
Prosecutor Cindy L. Johnson declined to comment after the verdict yesterday. Defense attorney Joseph Tauber said he would appeal the decision. "We are very disappointed," Tauber said. "We thought we had a good case for the jury. We are surprised by the outcome of the case."
Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 27, and Cabassa could be sentenced to 15 years in prison on the child-abuse charge, 10 years for assault and five years for reckless endangerment.
The child, whose name is being withheld by The Sun, is living with foster parents in Howard County. After the first trial, Cabassa gave birth to another daughter, who is living with Cabassa's mother in Florida.
Prosecutors and police accused Cabassa of burning her then-15-month-old daughter in November 1997. To inflict the second-degree burns that covered 47 percent of her daughter's body, Cabassa would have had to have kept the child in the bath water for 15 to 25 seconds, Johnson said.
During her closing arguments, Johnson sat on the floor and demonstrated the awkward position of a child in a bathtub to account for those kinds of wounds. Johnson also watched the clock and counted the seconds to demonstrate the time the child would have been in the tub.
"That's a long time to hear that child scream," Johnson said.
Johnson acknowledged during her closing arguments that she couldn't think of a motive for the abuse. "The biggest problem with my case," Johnson said before she started to cry, "is why would a mother do this? None of us would ever do this to our children."
One juror, a 66-year-old Fulton man who would not give his name, said Johnson's question was hard to resolve and he didn't want to convict Cabassa -- but the evidence and extensive photographs of the child's wounds were too much to ignore.
"The child had to be placed down in that water," the man said outside the Howard County Courthouse in Ellicott City. "The hardest part was to convince ourselves that a mother would do that to her child."
The trial lasted three days.
As Gelfman and lawyers were scheduling the sentencing date, Cabassa began to sob.
Though it took the jury of eight men and four women two hours to reach a verdict, the case has taken nearly two years to prosecute. After Cabassa pleaded guilty in the February deal with prosecutors, probation officers reported that Cabassa had not met with probation officials, did not ask permission to move from Savage to Severn last winter and did not attend parent and anger management classes.
Gelfman issued a warrant for Cabassa's arrest in March for failing to comply with probation and called off the plea agreement during an April hearing. Cabassa was arrested when she arrived half-an-hour late for that hearing and has been in custody since then.
The victim's foster mother said yesterday that the child is doing well. But the foster mother, whose name also is being withheld by The Sun, said she was unsure how to broach the subject of Cabassa's conviction with the daughter.
"I don't know what to say," she said. "I don't know when it's going to come up. Her mother made some bad choices, but I don't know what will happen in the future. I might say, 'You were hurt when you were with her. It just wasn't a safe place for you.' "