Sentence reduced from life in prison for Jada Justice killer
By Ruth Ann Krause Post-Tribune correspondent July 31, 2012 8:32PM
The Indiana Supreme Court has overturned the life sentence for Engelica Castillo, who was convicted of murder, neglect of a dependent and battery in the beating death of 2-year-old Jada Justice.
The state’s highest court found that the life-without-parole sentence imposed in 2010 for Castillo was inappropriate given her role in the crime and that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct during closing arguments.
The court ordered a 65-year sentence for Castillo, 21, who will be returned to Lake County from Rockville Correctional Facility so that Lake Superior Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. can impose the revised sentence, which is the maximum for murder.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with both of the arguments I presented,” said Marce Gonzalez Jr., Castillo’s court-appointed appellate attorney. Gonzalez said the court issued a “very well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion in a difficult case.”
In his oral argument before the Supreme Court, Gonzalez said he argued it was difficult to justify a life sentence for his client “when the more culpable co-defendant would likely be serving 10 to 15 years.”
Co-defendant Timothy Tkachik, 27, pleaded guilty to neglect of a dependent and battery in June 2010 and testified against Castillo in exchange for a maximum sentence of 50 years. Inmates receive day-for-day credit for good behavior while incarcerated.
The court found that the facts of the case didn’t support Castillo’s conviction for murder as a principal player but only as an accomplice in light of evidence that she slapped, poked, yanked the child by the arms and hair and spanked her. To be convicted of murder as the principal, the jury must find that the defendant knowingly or intentionally killed another person.
The court also found objectionable the prosecutor’s misstating the law in closing argument by telling jurors not to compare aggravating and mitigating factors. Indiana law requires jurors to make such a comparison.
That error, coupled with the prosecutor’s argument focusing on Castillo’s unsavory character, “not only placed the defendant in a position of grave peril to which she should not have been subjected but also presented an undeniable and substantial potential for an erroneous jury sentencing recommendation,” the court found.
Castillo was 18 and living with Tkachik, her then-boyfriend, in Hobart when Jada’s mother, Melissa Swiontek, brought the Portage toddler for a two-week stay in June 2009. Prosecutors presented evidence that Castillo became angry and spanked Jada after finding her with powdered drink mix and strawberries from the refrigerator.
The following day, on June 13, 2009, Jada locked herself in the bedroom, where she’d made a mess with syrup and powdered drink mix. Tkachik testified that Castillo spanked, slapped and grabbed Jada by the hair after she continued to misbehave.
About 90 minutes into the confrontation, Castillo told Tkachik that Jada had hit her head on a table when Castillo slapped her. Jada had a small cut above her right eye that bled slightly. Tkachik testified that Jada had red marks on her face and bruises on her buttocks after Castillo had beaten the child with a belt.
Tkachik testified he became frustrated with the ongoing conflict, ran into the bedroom and knuckled Jada “pretty hard” four to six times, hoping that would end the confrontation between Castillo and the girl. Still frustrated, Tkachik went to the gas station. When he returned, he testified he heard, “boom, boom, boom, boom” coming from the bedroom, but couldn’t see what was happening because the door was closed.
While Castillo and Tkachik were getting ready to leave to buy heroin in Chicago, Tkachik testified that Jada had a bruise on her face and seemed out of it. As they were driving, the child became unresponsive. They started CPR, returned home, covered the child’s body with a tarp, got into another vehicle and purchased drugs.
After they tried to burn the child’s body, the couple eventually encased it in cement and dumped it in a swamp in rural LaPorte County. Castillo concocted a story that the child had been abducted from a gas station, but eventually Tkachik led authorities to the body.
Swiontek, 30, Jada’s mother, was charged about one year ago with neglect of a dependent on allegations she knowingly or intentionally placed her daughter in a situation that endangered her life or health because she knew that Castillo and Tkachik were drug users and dealers. She has pleaded not guilty.