Former NYPD Officer Michael Valva, middle, listens to court proceedings...

Former NYPD Officer Michael Valva, middle, listens to court proceedings moments after a Suffolk jury found him guilty Friday evening of second-degree murder in the death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

The jury considering the fate of Michael Valva was split on whether to convict the ex-NYPD cop of the top charge of second-degree murder in the hypothermia death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas, when deliberations began Friday morning.

Jurors who spoke to Newsday over the weekend said they needed to better understand the legal concept of “depraved indifference,” a key part of the murder charge. And they wanted to build a timeline of events on the morning of Thomas' Jan. 17, 2020, death, so they asked to again hear the audio captured on the surveillance system at the home in Center Moriches.

"You're putting someone's life in your hands. You wanna be sure," said juror No. 6, Moises Lopez, a 25-year-old student who works in sales and lives in Bay Shore. "You don't want to do it in 20 minutes."

Three of the 12 jurors who unanimously voted Friday evening to convict Valva of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child in Thomas' death, and the abuse of both Thomas and his older brother Anthony, then 10, spoke to Newsday in separate interviews. The jury forewoman declined to comment, and several other jurors did not respond to messages.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Former NYPD Officer Michael Valva was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in the hypothermia death of his son, Thomas, 8, who, along with his older brother, Anthony, was forced to sleep in a freezing garage when the temperature plunged to 19 degrees in January 2020.
  • Valva faces a potential maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison on the murder charge. He will be sentenced Dec. 8 by Supreme Court Justice William Condon.
  • Valva's former fiancee, Angela Pollina, faces the same charges and is scheduled to go on trial in early 2023.

Prosecutors had alleged Valva, 43, and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, 45, forced Thomas and Anthony to sleep on the concrete floor of the garage in freezing temperatures before Thomas’ death.

Serving as jurors in the more than monthlong trial in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead as witnesses detailed Thomas and Anthony crying for food and coming to school bruised and battered was emotionally wrenching, they said. But they maintained an open mind as to whether Valva was innocent or guilty, they said.

“During the opening statements, it was really, really hard just to hear it all. … I’m like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ I started shaking," said Thaddeus L. Brewer, a salesperson at a Honda car dealership, who was juror No. 11. "How can I be here and just hear this? And the defense came and he told a different side. I said, ‘Oh, OK, maybe that isn’t what was going on.’ It was a roller coaster.” 

Brewer said he continued to work nights during the trial. But on the day that a plumber, who did repairs at the Valva home in July 2019, took the stand and tearfully described Pollina pushing one of the boys down two flights of stairs as Valva stood by and did nothing, Brewer said he was too upset to make it to work that night.

“I took a long drive after that,” said Brewer, of Bay Shore. “It kind of messed with me a little bit. One of the first things I did was call my two grandchildren — I have a 5-year-old granddaughter and a 2-year-old grandson — to hear their voices, to tell them I love them.”

Jury deliberations begin with a split

When the jury of eight women and four men began deliberating just after 11 a.m. Friday, they almost immediately took an anonymous vote on the second-degree murder charge. They each wrote their vote on a piece of paper and handed it to the forewoman, who then announced the results.

"It was definitely split," said juror No. 4, Christina Anselmo, who said she favored convicting Valva on the top charge from the beginning of deliberations. "I think there was one person who initially said not guilty and five said unsure. So our goal in seeing the videos again and listening to the 911 call was to see if we could hear an ounce of compassion or care in Michael's voice that day and really get a better idea of how long it took for Michael to take action." 

The jury sent its first note to State Supreme Court Justice William Condon asking for a copy of the charges at 11:25 a.m. Condon reread to the jury the definition of second-degree murder and its elements, as well as the lesser-included charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. 

Lead Valva defense attorney John LoTurco already had conceded Valva’s guilt to the four counts of endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the abuse of Thomas and Anthony during his summation. But he had urged the jury to convict Valva of the lowest charge connected to the murder, criminally negligent homicide, which calls for a maximum prison sentence of up to 4 years behind bars.

The jurors said they didn’t consider that charge. But they worked through their lunch while eating deli sandwiches provided by the court. They only stopped deliberating for bathroom breaks. The atmosphere was cordial.

“It was a friendly debate,” Lopez said. “Nobody was fighting at all. We were like, finally we can talk about it.”

Jurors are not allowed to talk about the case among themselves until they arrive at deliberations.

The jury also asked for crime scene photos taken by investigators, and to listen to Valva's 911 call and the nearly two-hour-long audio from the "Bella's room" video, a key piece of evidence because it captured much of what transpired in the home on the morning of Thomas' death. Thomas was pronounced dead at the hospital at 10:28 a.m. with a temperature of 76.1 degrees.

As the jury deliberated, jurors discussed the countering theories of the case. In particular, prosecutors' claims that Valva took Thomas outside and, while naked, doused him with cold water from a spigot. The defense argued the spigot wasn't used, and that Valva instead had filled a Sprite bottle with water to clean Thomas after he soiled himself and then brought the boy inside and gave him a shower that turned into a warm bath. 

"I made the point that I don't think there was a bath," Lopez said. "He says he's catatonic or unresponsive, so you wouldn't be able to put your kid in a shower if he's unresponsive."

Brewer, who said he initially was leaning toward the manslaughter charge, said he shifted after watching the video again and hearing the charges.

“Seeing that it took almost an hour to call 911, that was really it,” Brewer said. “Just finding no compassion at all, no remorse. Everything he did and said was depraved indifference."

Anselmo said she and her fellow jurors wanted to be thorough.

“We really took this seriously,” she said. “This is a decision that really affects the rest of his life. I think the public probably thought, ‘Oh, this is in the bag, why are they taking so long?’ But this is a serious decision.”

Lopez, who said his jury service has reinvigorated his goal of becoming a police officer, said: “I tried to put myself in Michael’s shoes. I prayed about it. I said if this man is innocent, let us see that. But there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence against him.”

Lopez said the jury ultimately concluded that Thomas “was dead for a while” before Valva called 911 at 9:41 a.m.

“We think he died in the garage before he was even brought to the basement,” Lopez said. “His lips were already blue by the time the police and EMTs got there. One thing that I pointed out, when he was in the garage yelling at Thomas, he then gets quiet and says, ‘Ang, can you come here for a minute?’ That's when we think he realized Thomas wasn't alive anymore.”

Jury also considered the defense's case

Anselmo, an assistant dean at Stony Brook University's School of Communication and Journalism, said the evidence showed that Pollina was dominant in the relationship — a key defense argument based on scores of text messages between the then-couple.

“It was obvious he was manipulated and bullied by Angela and he tried to put a stop to it — well, he said he was going to put a stop to it — but he never did,” said Anselmo, 41, of Stony Brook. “So it was really the inaction over the previous years, and then ultimately the inaction that morning that really made up my mind. It left us with no choice. We tried to see some good in him, and I think deep down inside there really was. But ultimately his inaction led to this. Any parent’s role is to take care of their children and protect them.”

“We didn’t feel like any of the defense witnesses were super credible,” Anselmo added. “It seemed like Tyrene [Rodriguez, the housekeeper] was a bit, but she didn’t remember details as well. And the hypothermia specialist was a bit odd and didn’t seem like he had prepared that well for it or reviewed notes of the case.”

Anselmo and Lopez said they and the rest of the jury were especially confounded at the hypothermia expert’s contention that it wasn’t important for doctors to receive accurate information about the events leading up to an injury — a reaction they shared with lead prosecutor Kerriann Kelly, who appeared bewildered by the expert’s statements while she cross-examined him.

“Her reaction was priceless,” Anselmo said.

Jurors praised the work of all the lawyers in the case, saying they were impressed with their professionalism and especially with the evidence display from the prosecution, including Kelly and prosecutors Laura Newcombe and James Scahill.

As their discussions were winding down, the jury decided to take another anonymous vote sometime just before 6 p.m. as they ate pizza that the court had provided for dinner. This time there was consensus that Valva was guilty of the top charge. They sent a note to the judge at 6:03 p.m. announcing that they had reached a verdict.

Valva faces a potential maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison on the murder charge when he's sentenced by Condon on Dec. 8.

Alternate juror No. 1, John Mulhern, did not decide the case, but the retired librarian remained in the courtroom with his fellow alternates as the verdict was rendered.

“We had all been there for five weeks ourselves and we wanted to see what the jury had to say and we wanted to see how it all played out,” said Mulhern, 71, of Kings Park. “It was all very impressive to see the justice system play out the way it did.”

Mulhern said he concurred with the jury.

“I agree with the final verdict,” Mulhern said. “I think they made the right choice.”

LoTurco, speaking to the reporters afterward, said he understood the case was “exceptionally challenging” for the jury.

“Michael, no matter what the verdict was, would be battling  his demons for the rest of his life,” said LoTurco, who was joined by fellow defense attorneys Anthony La Pinta and Sabato Caponi. “We were appointed when no other attorneys would step up to the plate. He was unrepresented and we as a defense team decided that Michael Valva needed an attorney, because in our country every person needs an attorney no matter how grievous the charges and heinous the charges are filed against them.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said the prosecution was “gratified” by the jury’s decision, but said its focus now shifts to Pollina, who has pleaded not guilty and is expected to be tried for second-degree murder early next year.

Thomas Valva was 8 years old when he died.

Thomas Valva was 8 years old when he died. Credit: Courtesy Justyna Zubko-Valva

The verdict's aftermath

Thomas’ and Anthony’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, did not attend the trial in person, but commented about the proceedings throughout and after Valva was found guilty.

“In 8 years of Tommy’s precious life, he would always stand for the TRUTH, despite the horrific consequences he was facing," she wrote Friday night. “Not a day goes by when we don’t think of our precious Angel Tommy. His merciful heart, beautiful smile, love, and kindness would gift the whole world, and make it better."

After the verdict, members of the jury met with the judge, prosecutors and defense.

"That was the first thing on all our minds after this decision was made and we were asking around, ‘Where are Anthony and Andrew now?’ " Anselmo said, "now that some justice had been done for Thomas.

"Anthony, that poor boy, I just hope he is being loved to pieces and cared for and adored." 

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