Aug. 21, 2008 — Ending a courtroom saga that has dragged on for almost 17 months, Daniel Castillo received a life sentence Thursday for strangling to death a 12-year-old child in April 2007.
After hearing final arguments, V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar sentenced Castillo to life plus 30 years for the murder of 6th grade Lockhart Elementary School honor student La'Quina Hennis. The sentences are to run concurrently.
In June, Castillo was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and child abuse by a jury of 11 women and one man. The verdict left many members of the community in a state of shock and disbelief.
At the initial hearing two weeks ago, Hollar had postponed the sentencing until Thursday to give public defender Harold Willocks more time to prepare his motion to merge the two charges against Castillo voluntary manslaughter and aggravated child abuse. That motion failed Thursday.
Thirty years is the maximum sentence for aggravated child abuse. The life sentence, Hollar said, was guided by the enhancement of the habitual offender sentence of 10 years to life applied to the voluntary manslaughter charge, which carries a maximum of 10 years.
Prosecutor Jesse Bethel chose to apply the habitual offender charge to the manslaughter count. Manslaughter is a felony the law defines as a crime of violence, unlike child abuse. Applying the habitual offender to that count ensures Castillo will not be eligible for parole in the first 10 years of his sentence.
Castillo has a long police record, including a 2004 arrest where he was charged with two counts of first-degree rape, two counts of carrying and use of a dangerous weapon, one count of attempted robbery and one count of third-degree assault, in an attack on a mentally challenged woman. All charges were dismissed except the third-degree assault charge, a felony. Castillo was fined $500 and sentenced to two years in jail, with all but 18 months suspended.
The high-profile case has held the community's attention since Castillo's confession, given three times, that he strangled the child to death on April 6 last year, Good Friday, and Castillo's 30th birthday. (See "Castillo Guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter.")
Hennis was reported missing on April 6 last year. She was last said to have been seen in the Sugar Estate area, where her body was found on April 12, in a plastic tote after neighbors reported a smell in the neighborhood.
The mood in the courtroom Thursday was somber and tense. When Bethel asked for the habitual offender charge, he said, "I can think of no more heinous crime than taking the life of a 12-year-old who had no ability to defend herself. He left her there. She wasn't found for five days, when her skeletal remains were discovered."
Hennis' mother, Anita Beatrice Hennis, did not wish to take the stand, Bethel said, but another relative did.
Christina Miller, La 'Quina's second cousin, directed her remarks to Castillo with an unrelenting gaze. Fighting off tears, Miller said, "I want you to know what you did to us. Words cannot express what you did to me and my family. I have to pray to God to forgive you, for Him to give me strength. You took our child. We need peace, and we need to sleep. We need justice."
Castillo gazed ahead, exhibiting no emotion.
Hennis, a petite 34-year-old, hugged a sweater around her slight shoulders as she sat beside court advocate Leslye Webb during the proceedings. Before court convened, Hennis said she was worried about the option of parole for Castillo.
Hennis has another daughter, eight-year-old La 'Quanda, whom she said "woke up screaming from a bad dream this morning that she was being chased."
In proclaiming the sentence, Hollar reiterated the charges against Castillo. "He has a history of violence," she said. She itemized the litany of charges against Castillo killing La "Quina, attacking and raping a mentally challenged woman, striking the mother of his four children.
"The family was not given the opportunity to say farewell to their loved one," Hollar said. "The way La'Quina was found, in a box folded up in a box, it takes your breath away. He took this 12-year-old who knew him. She went with him she did not know she would not come back."
Hollar called sentencing someone to life in prison "the hardest part of a judge's job."
"No judge likes to do this," she said. "You have to look at what he is doing to the family."
Noting that Castillo has expressed no remorse, she said, "Just the fact of confessing up to a crime goes a long way. I was going to throw the book at somebody once, but he finally admitted his guilt. That goes a long way."
Willocks summed up the mood of the morning before he pleaded for lenience for Castillo. "This is a sad, depressing time for the family, for the Virgin Islands. Everybody loses in this case. The family's loved one was taken away."
That said, Willocks pleaded for understanding for his client because he said Castillo has had a "hard life," and was not given the chance at rehabilitation.
Hollar bristled. "Your client has been in the system for years, since he was a teenager. This is not an isolated case," she said. Castillo had been provided rehabilitation repeatedly, Hollar said, and it was not successful.
Though Hennis refused to take the stand, she did submit a letter to Hollar, along with one from her eight-year-old daughter.
La 'Quanda Hennis wrote Hollar in part, "I cry myself to sleep every night. Who am I supposed to share my secrets with since La 'Quina is not here. She used to sleep with me when I was cold or afraid of the dark.
"Please," she asked Hollar, "do not let Mr. Castillo back out on the street because he will kill another innocent happy child again. He needs to go to jail for a very long time and get help for his anger and madness."
After the hearing, Hennis, walking with a spring in her step, smiled and said, "I can tell La 'Quanda, 'you can sleep now.'"
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