CROWN POINT | Engelica Castillo was sentenced Friday to life without the possibility of parole for the murder of her young cousin, 2-year-old Jada Justice.
A Lake Superior Court jury deliberated for about 90 minutes before returning with the decision about 7 p.m.
Weeping, the 20-year-old Castillo sank to her knees while her sister, Amanda Valdez, cast her head into her hands to stifle her cries.
Formal sentencing was set for Sept. 9 when defense attorney Lemuel Stigler may pursue objections he raised Friday to the jury's decision.
The jury had sole discretion to sentence Castillo to life without parole or to a specific number of years in prison. The jurors had been given a range of 45 to 72 years based on the other four charges of which Castillo had been convicted Thursday.
Castillo, of Hobart, was convicted of murder, two counts of neglect of a dependent, battery and false informing in the case.
The toddler's battered body was found encased in concrete in a LaPorte County swamp in June 2009 after a nine-day search that was launched after Castillo told authorities the child had been abducted from a Gary gas station.
Castillo's former boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, 25, had struck a plea deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against Castillo in the case. He is currently set for sentencing Sept. 10. He faces a sentence of between 20 and 50 years.
Prosecutors are eyeing a third defendant, Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said following Friday's jury decision.
"There's still one more person to look at, and we're working on it," Carter said without identifying the individual.
Regarding Castillo's fate, Carter said it's time for families to step up to protect children.
"(Castillo's family) knew she was not a proper person to look after a child," he said.
Having been charged Friday with deciding whether there were mitigating factors that could override any aggravating factors, jurors heard little from prosecutors who presented only two aggravating factors. They were that Jada had been murdered and was younger than 12.
Nearly daylong testimony by witnesses for the defense showed Castillo to be a sexually and physically abused child from the age of 9, when molested by a neighborhood boy.
Charges were not brought because Castillo's mother opted not to put Castillo through testifying. A videotape of an interview with authorities was shown to jurors Friday.
Two years later, Castillo said she was raped by a teenage cousin.
Testimony by Castillo's mother, Rita Rincon, and therapist indicated Castillo's parents believed the girl, but her father blamed Castillo.
Rincon testified she found her husband viciously beating the girl with a belt in the basement.
Testimony showed Castillo in and out of treatment programs, becoming a chronic runaway and truant in trouble with juvenile authorities in Lake and Porter counties.
She was not yet 16 when meeting Tkachik, who at 21 at the time.
"I thought he was 18 at the most," Rincon said.
Two years ago when a warrant for a probation violation was issued against Castillo, Rincon said she learned Castillo ran away to be with Tkachik.
Arguing for a sentence of life without parole, Lake Deputy Prosecutor Aleksandra Dimitrijevic told jurors, "Do not compare Engelica Castillo's pathetic, miserable childhood to the (death) of that child."
"She's broken, been broken since a kid, and there's no fixing her," she said of Castillo.
But in defending Castillo, Stigler argued her childhood problems merited consideration.
"Her mother decided she knew better than any of her doctors," Stigler said, arguing a team of professionals from two counties had been disregarded.
Therapist Jan Elliott testified Castillo's intellectual and emotional range is that of a 10-year-old.