An Ontario woman consumed by her religious beliefs not only turned a blind eye to the violence her husband inflicted on his daughter but encouraged the abuse that led to the girl's death, a judge found Monday in sentencing her to life in prison with no chance of parole for 16 years.
Elaine Biddersingh, 55, may herself have suffered on occasion at the hands of her husband Everton but she was his partner in the abuse that made Melonie Biddersingh's life "a living hell," Justice Ian MacDonnell said in his decision.
It's unclear what fuelled the couple's hatred of Melonie and the two siblings who came with her from Jamaica, MacDonnell said.
"While Everton and Elaine may have had different reasons for their hostility toward the Jamaican children, their antipathies came together in a combination that led directly to the shocking mistreatment of Melonie," who was made to sleep on the floor and sometimes confined to a barrel or chained to a wall as well as beaten frequently, the judge said.
"Melonie came to Canada with hopes and dreams," he said.
"Over a period of up to three years, the persons entrusted with her care crushed those hopes and dreams with a cruel, callous, relentless and ultimately lethal course of physical, psychological and emotional abuse," he said. "What happened to Melonie is inexplicably sad."
Biddersingh muttered and shook her head as the sentence was read in court. Earlier in the hearing, she railed against her conviction, shouting in court that she is innocent and pointing at four jurors sitting in the courtroom while accusing them of corruption.
"He instructed them to find me guilty ... I didn't murder nobody, I'm not guilty of nothing," she yelled. "Jesus is the only judge."
Outside court, defence lawyer Alana Page said her client's outbursts were likely due to her frustration with the judicial process.
"She had a hard time listening to what the judge had to say and she feels very powerless in this situation," Page said, adding she expects Biddersingh to appeal her conviction.
Biddersingh was convicted in June of second-degree murder in Melonie's death. The 17-year-old's frail body was found in a burning suitcase in an industrial parking lot north of Toronto in 1994, but went unidentified for years until 2011, when her stepmother told an Ontario pastor the girl had "died like a dog" after being confined and denied food and medication.
Melonie's father, Everton Biddersingh, was found guilty in January of first-degree murder in his daughter's death, which carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Second-degree murder also carries an automatic life sentence but the court has more latitude on determining parole eligibility.
Prosecutors had argued Elaine Biddersingh should spend 18 to 22 years in prison before having a chance at parole while the defence had suggested 10 years.
Melonie was dead before her body was stuffed in the suitcase, court heard, but what actually killed her remained unclear at trial, leaving the jury to determine whether she died from severe neglect and abuse or from drowning.
In his decision, MacDonnell said he was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the girl had drowned and that her father had carried out the attack.
Under the circumstances, however, "whether the immediate cause of death was drowning or the lengthy course of abuse is largely beside the point," he said.
"Regardless of which it was, the evidence is overwhelming that for almost all the 3.5 years that Melonie was in the charge of Everton and Elaine, she suffered through a horror of an existence that was inevitably going to kill her."
Though she did not testify at the trial, Biddersingh's lawyers suggested Melonie's father was to blame for the teen's death, while his wife was a victim of domestic abuse.
Elaine Biddersingh spent most of her time in her bedroom, court heard, and her lawyers argued she was unaware of what her husband was doing.
But MacDonnell said there was no evidence to suggest Biddersingh was forced to stay in her room and no way she could have missed what was going on in the family's small apartment.
Instead, he said, it was more likely that she "became consumed by her religious beliefs" and chose to withdraw in order to watch religious programming.
Melonie's brother, Cleon Biddersingh, 42, told a sentencing hearing earlier this month he has night sweats, nightmares, and eating disorders as a result of what he saw his sister suffer through and what he experienced himself.
"No human being or animal should ever be treated the way Melonie and I were treated at the hands of Everton and Elaine Biddersingh," he said in a victim impact statement.
In its sentencing arguments, the Crown said Elaine Biddersingh committed an egregious breach of trust in subjecting her stepdaughter to "prolonged slow suffering."
The defence said Elaine Biddersingh was instrumental in solving Melonie's murder and has not been a danger to society since the girl's death.
The Crown withdrew a charge of indignity to a dead body because it was considered an aggravating factor in the murder sentence and are deciding whether to go ahead with a charge of obstruction of justice.
Everton Biddersingh is also still facing two charges of obstruction of justice.