Wearing an orange jumpsuit and standing before a judge in Erie County Court Monday, Brianna Valenti admitted to causing the death of her boyfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. When Judge Sheila DiTullio asked Valenti if she caused the death of Raelynn Rose Fuller last September by shaking her, Valenti quietly responded, “Yes.”
Valenti, 27, of Grand Island, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, a class B felony, and was sent back to the Erie County Holding Center to await sentencing.
“She feels horrible about this situation,” said Valenti’s attorney, Robert Cutting, after the court proceedings. “She loved that child as if it were her own biological daughter and she feels terrible that this situation developed the way it did.”
Valenti shook the 2-year-old Raelynn while taking care of her Sept. 10 at she and her boyfriend’s shared Grand Island apartment. Raelynn died Sept. 22 at Oishei Children’s Hospital after being taken off life support.
Valenti was originally indicted in November for both first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder, a class A-1 felony that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he agreed to just the lesser manslaughter charge because of new evidence. Prosecutors originally believed Valenti waited two to four hours before calling 911, but Raelynn’s brain scan showed Valenti actually called 911 right after the injury.
“In order to get depraved indifference, I would have needed both. I would have needed the shaken baby and the fact that she didn’t call 911 and waited,” Flynn told reporters after the court proceedings. “So when I lost that one, now I really only had a manslaughter charge here.”
Flynn said he still could have taken Valenti to trial on the second-degree murder charge, but felt it would have been “a significant overreach.”
“An overreach almost to the point where it could have been unethical of me to do that,” he added.
However, Flynn said he doesn’t regret originally charging Valenti with second-degree murder; he noted the brain scan that showed she immediately called 911 can take six months to get.
“Just because I arrest someone on one charge, doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind at a later date,” he added.
Cutting said his client agreed to plead guilty after he was unable to find a doctor who could contradict the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office opinion Raelynn died by shaken baby syndrome.
“We were really left in a position where it was necessary to resolve the case by way of a plea because we couldn’t controvert the medical evidence that would have been brought forth against our client at trial,” Cutting said.
It’s estimated 1,000 to 3,000 children suffer from shaken baby syndrome in the U.S. each year. The brain injury hospitalizes about 33 children per year in New York state, according to the New York State Department of Health.
First-degree manslaughter normally carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, but DiTullio said she’ll sentence Valenti to no more than 15 years in prison. The minimum sentence is five years.
“Obviously with a young client with no criminal history to speak of, we believe this was a far more of a tragic accident than anything else and it’s our hope that the court will display appropriate leniency on behalf of our client at the time of sentencing,” Cutting said.
Sentencing is set for Oct. 7.