Balancing a grieving father's impassioned plea to have his family reunited against a prosecutor's demand for punishment, a Superior Court judge Friday imposed a five-year prison term on a 35-year-old Lakewood woman for leaving her 10-month-old son to drown in a bathtub of running water.
The sentence Judge James Den Uyl imposed on Ericka Cabrera, 35, is the minimum for second-degree child endangerment, the crime Cabrera pleaded guilty to March 6 when she admitted to the judge that she left her son, Diego, in a tub of running water on Dec. 19, 2006.
The judge gave Cabrera credit for the 331 days she has already served in the Ocean County Jail while awaiting disposition of her case. He imposed no period of parole ineligibility, meaning Cabrera can be considered for release on parole after she has served a total of about 20 months. The maximum Cabrera could have faced for the crime was 10 years in prison.
Barbieri cited a history of depression and attention-deficit and bipolar disorders that her client suffers from, and the remorse and grief she feels as a result of her son's death.
"On Dec. 19, 2006, 2-1/2 years ago, a young mother with no prior convictions had a terrible lapse in her judgment, and that lapse ended in a horrible tragedy," Barbieri said. ". . . She is in a private terror of her own grief and loss and remorse, and that will be her greatest punishment."
Cabrera, crying and reading a written statement, said, "My heart is broken by this tragic accident."
An emotional Edgardo Cabrera, the defendant's husband, made an emotional request to the judge.
"I came especially because I want to see if you can help me to have my family back," he said to the judge. "I need my kids. I need my wife. My kids, they're missing her a lot. They always cry when I have visitation. They're always asking for mom."
Cabrera had four other children, ages 4 through 9, who were immediately placed in foster care upon Diego's death, according to Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Laura Pierro. She also has has a 13-year-old child whose whereabouts are unknown, an 11-year-old child for whom she surrendered her parental rights, and a 1-year-old child put into foster care at birth, Pierro said.
In a fiery defense of her client, Barbieri said Ericka Cabrera gave up one of her children because she knew she was too immature at the time to care for the child.
But Pierro said what Cabrera did to Diego should not be lost amid all the emotion in the courtroom.
"This woman placed a 10-month-old infant, a baby, her baby who had not yet begun to walk, in a bathtub," Pierro said. "She let the water run and she walked away, and we're here because she did not come back.
"Diego drowned in that bathtub because she did not come back," Pierro said. "It was perhaps as much as 30 minutes that that baby, that helpless baby, lay in that bathtub before she found him floating. That is not the kind of accident that the law excuses."
Pierro said the tub was overflowing before Cabrera went back to check on the infant and found him floating. Hours later, water was still dripping into a downstairs neighbor's apartment because of the water from the overflowing tub, she said.
"This is parenting 101 — You do not leave a baby in a bathtub filling with water alone," Pierro said. "Everybody knows that."