The Indiana Supreme Court reduced the sentence of a woman who, along with her boyfriend, was convicted in the events that led to the murder of the woman’s 2-year-old cousin while in her care.
The court ruled in a 4-1 opinion that Engelica Castillo’s sentence for murder should be reduced to 65 years in prison. Castillo challenged the appropriateness of her sentence and also raised the argument of prosecutorial misconduct.
Castillo and her then-boyfriend, Timothy J. Tkachik, were charged in June 2009 with murder, neglect of a dependent, battery and false informing after the body of Jada Justice, 2, was found in a swampy body of water near LaPorte.
About a year later, Tkachik pleaded guilty to a Class A felony neglect charge and agreed to testify against Castillo in exchange for a sentence of no more than 50 years in prison.
Both Tkachik and Castillo admitted beating Jada before a planned trip to Chicago to buy heroin, according to court records. On the way, the boyfriend found the baby leaning down in her car seat, not breathing. Efforts to revive the baby with CPR failed, and the baby was covered with a tarp as the two set off again toward Chicago.
Both said the baby was dead when they returned later that night.
The justices said that to be convicted of murder as a principal, a defendant must knowingly or intentionally kill another. “These facts do not support a conviction of the defendant for murder as a principal but only as an accomplice,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote, noting that Tkachik might have been as likely to have been responsible for the fatal injuries.
“Notwithstanding the defendant's terrible treatment of the child, none of her actions were causally linked to either cause of death offered to explain the victim’s death at trial,” Dickson wrote in an opinion in which Justice Frank Sullivan concurred. Justice Robert Rucker concurred in the result, and Justice Steven David concurred in a separate opinion.
David said he believed evidence was sufficient to prove to a jury that Castillo knowingly killed the victim, but he didn’t object to revising the sentence due to Castillo’s difficult upbringing, Tkachi’s involvement, and terms of his plea agreement and prosecutorial misconduct.
The justices found the prosecutor “actually told the jury not to compare the mitigating and aggravating factors. … Telling the jury not to balance the aggravators and the mitigators touched on the central task of the jury in deciding whether to impose life without parole.” Dickson wrote.
Prosecutorial misconduct occurred, the justices concluded, but it did not result in an adjustment of sentence because the sentence was adjusted based on the appropriateness argument.
Justice Mark Massa dissented. He held that there was evidence for a jury to conclude that Castillo was a principal actor, and that the prosecutorial misconduct did not constitute fundamental error.
“Even taking the majority’s view of culpability, I still believe a sentence of life without parole is not inappropriate on these facts,” Massa wrote.