ELLICOTT CITY, MD., SEPT. 21 -- Sandra A. Craig, convicted of molesting a 6-year-old girl at her Howard County day care center, was sentenced today to 10 years in prison, less than the prosecution and defense expected in the highly publicized child abuse case.

Craig, who was convicted by a jury in April on six counts of physical and sexual abuse, faced a maximum sentence of life plus 20 years. But Howard County Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., in a move that surprised both sides in the case, sentenced her to 10 years in prison for each of four counts of first and second degree sexual abuse, child abuse and perverted sexual practice, and then ruled that the jail terms could be served concurrently.

The 40-year-old mother of three is eligible for parole in about three years, state corrections officials said. In October, she is scheduled to be tried on similar charges involving 11 other children who attended Craig's Country Pre-School.

"The very least we ask of people to whom we entrust the care of our children is that they not mistreat or abuse them," Kane said in handing down the sentence. "Though you have lived an otherwise exemplary life, the crimes of which the jury convicted you are so heinous that in order to punish you and to deter others, I'm going to recommend a period of incarceration."

Craig, who has maintained her innocence throughout the trial, spoke in a low and solemn voice before the packed courtroom.

"I find myself standing here confused, because I've lived my life in a way that I couldn't imagine standing here," she said. "I've been charged and convicted of a crime I never committed and I'm not guilty of."

Defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr. said his client planned to appeal. Kane then granted Murphy's request that Craig be allowed to remain free on a $150,000 bond pending her appeal.

Kane's decision was met calmly by Craig, her family, and the parents of the 6-year-old girl. Craig's husband Michael said that his family had come to court today expecting a stiffer sentence.

State prosecutors, who had asked Kane to impose the maximum sentence, also said they were surprised. "We expected more," said Assistant State's Attorney Kate O'Donnell, noting that Maryland court guidelines recommend a minimum of 20 years in jail in a case of this kind. But, she added, "I don't consider 10 years to be a lenient disposition. Ten years is a significant period of incarceration."

O'Donnell said that although the state was prepared to deal with the other cases against Craig as scheduled, prosecutors would be meeting with parents to determine whether they still want their children to undergo the rigors of a trial.

The trauma experienced by the families on both sides was a point highlighted by both Murphy and O'Donnell in their presentencing remarks. Both attorneys noted that whatever punishment the judge meted out, the lives of at least two families have been forever marred by the events of the last year.

In arguing for the maximum sentence, O'Donnell repeated the girl's allegations that Craig had "poked" her "private places" with a stick, pricked her hands with thumb tacks and threatened her with death or the loss of her parents' love if she told anyone about it.

Reading from a victim impact statement prepared by the girl's parents, O'Donnell said the girl's family's "zest for living" had been subjugated by the realization that their daughter had been abused and the stress of helping her overcome the attendant fear that someone would harm her.

O'Donnell also criticized Craig for failing to show remorse.

Murphy, meanwhile, said that since Craig had maintained her innocence, it would be "impossible for her to express remorse. She believes she has been the victim of serious character misrepresentation."

The effect of her indictment and subsequent conviction "has been nothing less than devastating" to Craig and her family, Murphy said. In addition to losing a source of income when her day care center was closed by the local health department last year, Craig has paid in excess of $200,000 in attorney's fees, he said.