A Suffolk judge on Thursday sentenced ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva to a maximum of 25 years to life in prison for the murder of his 8-year-old son Thomas Valva, who died from hypothermia after Valva forced Thomas to sleep in a freezing garage.
Supreme Court Justice William Condon handed down the maximum punishment allowed under the law to Valva, 43, of Center Moriches, in a Riverhead courtroom packed with spectators — including several of the jurors who decided his fate — nearly three years after Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020.
"How did all of us, as a community, allow this to happen?" Condon said from the bench. "And I acknowledge, this is not the appropriate forum to have that discussion, but it needs to happen."
Condon, a veteran judge who is retiring at the end of the year, choked back tears as he made his remarks. “An 8-year-old boy who right now should be getting excited for Christmas is dead. I speak to everybody out there, we can never let this happen again,” he said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva was sentenced Thursday to 25 years to life in prison for the hypothermia death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas.
- Supreme Court Justice William Condon handed down the maximum sentence allowed under the law to Valva, 43, of Center Moriches, nearly three years after Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020.
- John LoTurco, Valva’s defense attorney, said he planned to file a notice of appeal of Valva’s sentence within the next 30 days.
Condon added that his sentence was “consistent with the recommendation of the probation department.” Reading from the probation report, he said of Valva: "Rather than be his children's protector, he was a warden who starved and abusively punished them."
Several members of the public, sitting in the courtroom gallery, applauded after Condon delivered his sentence. It has not yet been determined where Valva would serve his sentence.
Several of Thomas’ schoolteachers and the homicide detectives who investigated his death attended the sentencing. Valva, in a suit and tie and graying beard, cried throughout the proceeding. "I am truly sorry," Valva sobbed as he addressed the courtroom, reading from prepared remarks, before the judge sentenced him. “I’m regretful, ashamed, heartbroken and grief-stricken, standing here before you, having contributed to the death of my son Thomas. I loved Thomas with all my heart as I still love Anthony and Andrew. Never in my worst nightmare would I have imagined being responsible for Thomas’ death. My sons mean everything to me. I wanted them to grow up in a loving and happy family."
Before imposing the sentence, Condon spoke to Valva directly.
“I think you are sincere in saying that you’re sorry, Mr. Valva, I really do,” said Condon. “And I don’t think you intended to kill Thomas. Not at all….But there’s no getting around the fact that Thomas and Anthony lived their young lives under constant duress, in the place they should have felt safest, their own home."
Condon said the fact that Valva was a police officer "makes your actions that much more unimaginable, to be candid."
Lead prosecutor Kerriann Kelly asked the judge to sentence Valva to the maximum, citing the "cruel and unusual ways" he punished his boys. Exiling them to a freezing garage, Kelly said, was "the ultimate despicable act."
Lead defense attorney John LoTurco asked the judge to sentence Valva to "something less than the maximum," adding that the events of the morning when Thomas died was a "perfect storm" of "a series of poor decisions by Michael."
He said Valva was “ashamed, broken and remorseful” for his actions and the comments he made to his son "didn’t come from his heart, they came from his aggravation.”
LoTurco said he planned to file a notice of appeal of Valva’s sentence within the next 30 days, saying, “We are disappointed, but not surprised in any way.”
A Suffolk County jury convicted Valva last month of second-degree murder in Thomas’ death and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child for the abuse of Thomas and his then-10-year-old brother, Anthony.
Valva, the jury found, failed to summon medical attention until Thomas was already likely dead, and then lied to the first responders and doctors who tried to save his son’s life. Thomas’ body temperature was 76.1 degrees minutes before he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The jury chose the top charge over the lesser included charges of second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, rejecting the defense's argument that Thomas' death was a tragic accident.
The guilty verdict capped an emotional trial in which prosecutors presented shocking images of child abuse that occurred in the years leading up to Thomas’ death.
“This was the most stressful trial I’ve ever been a part of, as either a lawyer or a judge,” said Condon, who spent 14 years as a judge. “Everybody who took part in this trial lost sleep, didn’t eat, had nightmares. It was difficult for everyone.”
Video from a surveillance camera system inside the then-couple’s home, which was displayed for the jury at trial, showed Thomas and Anthony sleeping on the floor of the garage, and also eating and doing homework in the unheated space before Thomas’ death. The boys, who were both on the autism spectrum, were banished to the garage as a form of punishment because of "incontinence that developed as a result of the torturous life they lived at 11 Bittersweet Lane," Kelly said.
The home on Bittersweet Lane, where Valva moved in 2017 with his three sons to live with his then-fiancee, Angela Pollina, and her three daughters, was not what it seemed, prosecutors said. It was a “house of horrors,” prosecutors said.
Kelly recounted for the judge the many abuses the boys endured.
"They were funny, kind, sweet little 8- and 10 year-old-boys who got along well with their peers," Kelly said. "But unfortunately, your honor, because of this defendant, we will never know what Thomas could have been, what he could have become and what his mark on the world would be.”
In an apparent reference to Child Protective Services, Kelly said: "Although the loss of his life, despite efforts by his mother and the East Moriches school to save him, has highlighted the necessity of services to protect children who are being harmed in the home.”
The boys frequently came to school hungry and cried for food, their schoolteachers testified tearfully. Teachers saw the boys, who they said appeared “emaciated,” eat crumbs off the floor and food from the garbage. The boys, whose cheeks and hands appeared red, complained they were cold all the time, their teachers said. Anthony refused to take off his coat in class, his teachers said, and he attempted to skip recess.
They boys were “very bright” but often came to school “distraught” and crying about their home life. Teachers documented bruises, scrapes and other injuries, trial testimony showed. Thomas “loved school” and Anthony had an "amazing oral reading voice" and often volunteered to read aloud in class.
But they told teachers they hadn’t eaten breakfast and were hungry. Thomas told one teacher he didn’t get breakfast because he didn’t “use my words” or verbally greet Pollina or call her “mommy.”
The teachers and other school officials filed several complaints to Child Protective Services and in one instance worked together to “flood” CPS with reports detailing the boys’ abuse. But the boys were never removed from their home.
“And please also consider, your honor, the defendant’s great fortune, actually, that no matter what sentence you impose, he will have a cell with a bed and a blanket and a pillow and heat, as well as three meals a day — all the things he denied his children," Kelly said. "And he won’t have to take food out of the garbage or crumbs off the floor to survive the way Thomas and Anthony did.”
In particularly jarring testimony, a plumber who had done work in a bathroom at the home testified that he saw Pollina throw one of the boys down two flights of stairs. Valva stood by, according to the plumber, and did nothing as Pollina dragged the boy down the rest of the steps.
Valva knew Thomas was dead when he beckoned Pollina to the garage that morning, Kelly said. But “it still took him another 39 minutes” to call 911, she said.
“He and Angela concocted a story for the police about why there was a dead child in the basement.”
The night before Thomas died, he was forced to sleep in the freezing garage when the low temperature was just 19 degrees, prosecutors said. After Thomas soiled himself that morning — which prosecutors said appeared to indicate he was already feeling the effects of hypothermia — Valva took his son outside and washed him with cold water from a spigot, prosecutors said.
Thomas "was in the throes of dying," Kelly said.
Thomas fell down repeatedly, or as Valva put it, “he keeps faceplanting on the concrete.”
Though Pollina, who is slated to go on trial in February on murder and child endangerment charges in Thomas’ death, deleted several videos from the morning that Thomas died, according to trial testimony, police found one video from inside a combination pantry and laundry room where the family dog lived that helped illustrate the events that morning.
“Are you alive?” Valva shouted repeatedly at Thomas, striking him in the face, according to audio on the video. It wasn’t until nearly an hour later that Valva called 911. That timeline convinced jury that Valva was guilty of the top murder charge, according to several jurors who talked to Newsday after the verdict.
On the 911 call, Valva was heard counting aloud, as if to coincide with chest compressions he was administering to Thomas. But Valva, a veteran NYPD officer, initially put Thomas on the couch as he performed CPR, which is in contrast to established guidelines to place someone on a hard, flat surface, according to trial testimony.
At one point, the 911 operator asked if Thomas was breathing.
"I don't know,” Valva replied with a chuckle, “to be honest."
Valva’s defense attorneys had argued Valva was a loving and involved father who didn't want his son to die. He tried to save Thomas' life by calling 911 and performing CPR, as the family's cleaning lady had testified for the defense.
Valva had brought the boys back inside on more than one occasion, the defense had argued. But it was Pollina who demanded the boys sleep in the garage, the defense argued. Valva, who argued with Pollina at times over the issue through text messages, only agreed to the setup to appease Pollina because he was under financial distress as he battled the boy’s mother in their divorce proceedings.
Prosecutors disputed that.
”The defendant ripped Thomas, Anthony and Andrew from the arms of his loving mother, so he wouldn’t have to pay child support and to afford a big house with Anglea Pollina, his co-defendant," Kelly said Thursday.
Police officers, a paramedic and EMT all testified that Thomas was cold to the touch and had no pulse when they arrived in the basement of the home and began lifesaving measures. Valva told them Thomas had fallen in the driveway of the home while running for the school bus that morning and sustained a head injury before falling unconscious, according to trial testimony.
The paramedic, EMT, several of Thomas' schoolteachers and the homicide detectives attended the sentencing.
District Attorney Ray Tierney, echoing the judge’s remarks, said: “We have to make sure we do everything we can, to ensure that we prevent something like this from ever happening again.”
Justyna Zubko-Valva’s civil attorney Jon Norinsberg expressed disappointment at the sentence, which was the maximum allowed under the law.
“That is not nearly enough time,” said Norinsberg. “He should have to spend every last minute of his waking life in jail for what he did to that poor, innocent child.”
Zubko-Valva did not appear in court to give a victim impact statement, but Kelly noted to the court that “she expressed the depth of her loss and how much she loved her son” in the times she had met with the mother previously.
“Please understand this is extraordinarily painful for Justyna,” said Norinsberg. “She is trying to move on with her life and protect her two remaining children to the best of her ability. That is her sole priority right now.”
Asked how Anthony and Andrew are doing, Norinsberg said: “All things considered, they are doing all right...But there is a long road ahead for both of them in order to make a full recovery for everything they have been through.”