By Shayna Jacobs
MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — An ex-con was sentenced to life in prison for helping to burn a mother of three to death in what prosecutors call an "unspeakable" home invasion nightmare more than a decade ago in Harlem.
Daniel Santana, 35, was convicted at trial of murder and kidnapping on June 13. Prosecutors said he and several others doused 31-year-old Carmen Maria in acetone and then lit her on fire on Dec. 7, 1997 at her West 150th Street apartment.
"It is the worst crime of murder that I have witnessed in my career," Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Thomas Farber said before ordering the thug to serve 25 years to life behind bars.
He and a group of three others, including two who were never caught, entered the apartment to rob Maria, her sister and another man who lived there, both of whom were also tortured but survived.
"What went on in that apartment for close to one hour is practically unspeakable. The fear and terror they must have felt that morning is hard to describe," Assistant District Attorney Jeanne Olivio said.
Maria, the prosecutor said, went through unbearable suffering.
"As we know she became a human torch and burned to death," Olivio said. "But before she died she lived for eight long hours."
Maria was taken to Harlem Hospital with disfiguring burns. Her sisters were too terrified to be with her in her final moments, Olivio told the judge in arguing for the maximum sentence against Santana.
The intruders also severely burned a man in the apartment with an iron and then poured acetone on his burns. Maria's sister was burned by the fire that engulfed her sibling as she tried to put out the flames.
The robbers had tied up the trio and pointed guns at their heads as they searched the apartment for cocaine. They may have been ransacking the wrong apartment.
Once he was finally charged in this case, in 2008, Santana sent members of his family to threaten witnesses in the Dominican Republic.
Santana had burglary, escape and other convictions on his record when Maria was killed.
A co-defendant, whose name was sealed because he was a cooperator, was promised a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against Santana, the defendant's attorney said.
At the time the atrocity was committed, Santana was free on bail in connection with another brutal home invasion on 136th Street, in which he tied up and pointed guns at an elderly women and twin children who lived in the apartment.
When offered the chance to speak, Santana said he was innocent and vowed to fight the conviction on appeal.
"I feel bad for [Maria's sister] and what her family is going through and it is very bad when you lose a brother and family. I still [maintain] my innocence. I was not there," he said.
Maria's sister and the man who survived also spoke, through Spanish translators. They said their lives were forever changed by the horrific incident.
Their names are being withheld at their request due to safety concerns.