Melissa Calusinski will spend 31 years in prison for killing a toddler at the Lincolnshire day-care center where she worked.
Lake County Circuit Judge Daniel Shanes issued the sentence during a hearing Thursday. A jury convicted Calusinski, 25, in November of first-degree murder in the Jan. 14, 2009, death of 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan of Deerfield at the former Minee Subee in the Park day care center.
Calusinki's defense attorney, Paul DeLuca, had asked for the minimum sentence of 20 years. Prosecutor Christen Bishop argued that she deserved 65 years behind bars.
In a statement to the court before she was sentenced, Calusinski related her sorrow about Benjamin's death to the Kingan family.
However, Calusinski maintains her innocence and said she'll keep fighting. She said detectives forced her into a confession.
"My statements were false, but I had no choice but to say those things," she said.
But Shanes said there is "no doubt" Calusinski voluntarily made statements to police before she was charged with murder. He added that jurors rejected finding her guilty on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
"What happened in this case is a civilized society's nightmare," Shanes said. "This case is a true tragedy."
Benjamin's mother, Amy Kingan, gave an emotional statement from the witness stand with her husband, Andrew, seated next to her. The couple has four children, including a girl who is Benjamin's twin and was present when he died.
Amy Kingan said her husband visits Benjamin's grave at least three times a week at Vernon Township Cemetery. She said her husband reads books, sings songs and tells Benjamin what's happening with the family.
"Because of Melissa's actions, our children have been forever affected," Amy Kingan said. "Our dinner conversations often revolve around Ben and his death. The kids wonder if their teachers at school are going to kill them."
Calusinski, 25, was convicted of throwing Benjamin to the floor while she worked as a teacher's aide. Amy Kingan said she never thought Benjamin would die at the hands of a day-care professional.
At her trial, Calusinski claimed Benjamin died when he aggravated an existing head injury. She contended the injury occurred when the toddler smacked his head on the floor and that police tricked her into confessing to the murder.
Crystal Calusinski, 26, of Mount Prospect, said her sister always has been kindhearted, and she never knew her to even receive a traffic ticket. Melissa Calusinski joined her sister on the job at Minee Subee in 2008, trial testimony showed. The day care center closed in 2009.
"The sweetest person I have ever known," Crystal Calusinski said. "When I needed her, she was always there."
DeLuca, in arguing for the minimum 20-year sentence, said Melissa Calusinki didn't have any prior convictions and there were no reports she abused children at Minee Subee before Benjamin's death.
But Bishop painted a different portrait of Calusinski when she requested the 65-year sentence.
She said Calusinski was a trained day-care professional who didn't seek help for Benjamin when he was injured after hitting the floor and was deceptive in her interviews with detectives.
"Those tears she shed in the Lincolnshire Police Department were tears for her, not for Ben," Bishop said.
After court, Paul Calusinski of Carpentersville said the family believes in his daughter's innocence and the conviction will be appealed. He said Naperville attorney Kathleen Zeller, who has represented wrongful-conviction clients freed from prison, has joined his daughter's legal team.
"My daughter was coerced into a confession, she didn't do this crime, she told the judge that we are going to fight it," Paul Calusinski said. "And that's exactly what we're going to do."
Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Scheller, who prosecuted the case with Bishop and Matthew DeMartini, dismissed the accusations that Melissa Calusinki confessed against her will.
"Clearly, in this case, the issue of this confession was litigated over months and months and months in front of two separate judges," Scheller said after the hearing. "Both of them had ruled about the legality of the statement. The statement was actually viewed in its entirety. Let's be clear about that.
"The police videotaped and audio taped every moment of their conversation with the defendant. The jury clearly rejected that the statement was false."
Before the sentencing, Shanes rejected a motion by defense lawyers that had sought a new trial for Calusinski. She will receive three years of credit toward her prison sentence for the time she's been in the Lake County jail.