A 20-year-old Severn woman was found guilty of child abuse and second-degree assault in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday for scalding her 15-month-old daughter in a steaming tub of bleach and water two years ago.
Mary V. Cabassa began weeping openly minutes after the eight-man, four-woman jury announced its verdict, as did several court employees and lawyers who sat through the emotionally wrenching two-day trial.
Cabassa, who lived in Savage when the incident occurred, faces up to 15 years in prison for the child-abuse conviction and 10 years for assault. She also faces up to five years for a reckless-endangerment conviction in December, stemming from the same incident. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 27. She is being held at the Howard County Detention Center.
Cabassa's daughter, now 3, lives with foster parents in Laurel. She suffered extensive permanent scarring on her legs and waist but is otherwise healthy, according to her foster parents. They are moving to terminate Cabassa's parental rights in Howard County Circuit Court and hope to adopt the girl.
Emotions ran high throughout the courtroom at several points in the trial. A seasoned Howard County police detective, a key witness for the prosecution, broke down while describing the crime scene. The eyes of Howard County prosecutor Cindy Johnson welled up during her closing argument.
Jurors were visibly moved when shown photos of the toddler's body, almost half of it cherry red. She suffered second-degree burns over 47 percent of her body, most of it below her waist, and spent 108 days recovering in a hospital.
Defense attorney Joseph Tauber argued that the toddler crawled into the bathtub full of hot water and bleach, then climbed out and walked into the hallway where Cabassa found her.
Johnson rejected this, saying that the infant "could not crawl into the tub at that age" and that her burns were so severe that walking would be all but impossible.
A burn expert testified Wednesday that the infant's burns could only have been caused by exposure to the hot bleach solution for 15 to 25 seconds. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the trial, Johnson asked the jury to think of the toddler screaming as she was lowered into the water, then paused.
"Five . . . 10 . . . 15 . . . 20 . . . 25 seconds," she said, counting off the painful seconds she said the toddler was held in the water.
The jury took two hours to reach its verdict.
Cabassa was convicted in December of reckless endangerment in the case, but the jury deadlocked on the child-abuse and assault charges. Cabassa struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and serve 18 months in jail in exchange for forgoing a second trial on the two charges.
But she failed to live up to other terms of the deal, which included attending parenting and anger-management classes and regular meetings with a probation agent. At her sentencing hearing in April, Howard County Circuit Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman revoked the deal, setting the stage for this week's trial.
Cabassa's motive for scalding her daughter was not explored. At one point Johnson rhetorically asked: "Why would a mother do this? It is something we cannot conceive of."