In a barely audible voice, 23-year-old Brittney R. Downing for the first time Wednesday publicly admitted guilt in the deaths of her two children, a baby daughter 3 months old and a son, 20 months, who was the first to die.
The former high school academic standout and scholarship college student showed little emotion in a Henrico County Circuit Court proceeding that lasted barely 30 minutes.
But her lawyer, Vaughan Jones, said after court that a three-hour sentencing hearing in March, which could bring Downing up to 25 years in prison, "will reveal a heartbreaking ordeal for everyone involved."
Downing, who remained free on $130,000 bond Wednesday, was a devoted, caring mother, Jones said, who adored her children and fatally tried to balance her independence as a single mother, her need for work and an inability to find help with child care in May last year.
Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor told the court Wednesday that the two children were kept in a locked car in the parking lot of a Henrico hotel where Downing worked and that, despite moderate temperatures that did not exceed 73 degrees outside, the children's body temperatures reached levels that caused their brains to swell and bring on severe neurological distress.
Downing's son, Jelani, 20 months, apparently was dead by the time Downing reached her home that Sunday, May 26, after work.
Downing's infant daughter, Jade, died four days later while on life support at a hospital. The infant survived longer because her skull, which had not fully formed, was better able to accommodate her swelling brain, Taylor said.
Downing, accompanied by sheriff's deputies, was able to see her deceased children the day before their funeral.
But Taylor, relying on witness accounts, described the young woman's demeanor as flat with no affect at her apartment as family members and a roommate became distraught in the wake of what was unfolding May 26.
Taylor called the pleas to involuntary manslaughter charges, reduced from felony murder indictments carrying up to 40 years each, appropriate given the circumstances of the case.
She said she sympathizes with Downing's predicament but said Downing also showed a reckless disregard for the welfare of the children and is responsible for their deaths.
Downing also faces a child endangerment charge stemming from her admission that she had on a previous occasion left the infant in the car alone at the same hotel. She had begun working there just days before the May 26 incident.
"What happened in court is justifiable given the facts of this case," Taylor said. The plea agreement leaves Taylor free to ask that the maximum allowable punishment be imposed.
Dressed in a black suit and high heels, Downing was accompanied Wednesday by her father and mother, former military personnel who operate a Hopewell storefront church and live in a middle-class suburb near Colonial Heights.
Neither parent testified Wednesday, but Jones said he will summon numerous witnesses at the sentencing hearing March 26, many of whom wrote letters of support for Downing when she was granted bond in August.
Among the letters was one from a minister who described Downing, a Thomas Dale High School graduate and scholarship engineering student in college, as "an overwhelmed young mother" whose role in her children's deaths were "in no way committed in malice or intention to cause harm." ___