PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, Va. - A mother whose children died after they were left in a hot car was freed from jail following her sentencing hearing at Henrico court.
Brittney Downing, 23, faced 25 years in prison, but served just 72 days.
"We all knew going in, that this was not going to be an easy decision,” Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor said.
In August 2013, Downing pleaded guilty to two counts of Involuntary Manslaughter and one count of Felony Child Neglect. In May 2013, Downing left her children in her car for eight hours while she worked her shift at a Glen Allen hotel. The children later died.
During her sentencing Tuesday, Downing's family described her as a bright, intelligent and fun loving person; a woman deeply rooted in her faith.
But since the death of her children, Downing’s mother worried about her daughter.
“Sometimes I wonder if she’ll make it through this without taking her own life,” Pamela Downing said. “She is fragile. She was raised in a sheltered environment.”
On the stand, Brittney Downing broke down, telling the judge: "It was my fault."
A video was shown in court of Brittney speaking before her father’s church congregation at Victorious Christian Loving Ministries, reflecting on her life.
"I want to talk about life lessons,” Brittney said. “I would never do anything to hurt my children."
"There's not going to be any answer that's going to satisfy anybody as to why a mother who by all accounts, a loving, caring, doting parent will leave her children in the car for that long,” Downing's attorney Vaughan Jones said.
Prosecutors said Downing had just started a job at the Comfort Suites on Telegraph Rd. when she left her 20-month-old son Jelani and three-month-old daughter Jade in her car in the hotel’s parking lot.
Taylor said Downing went to the car once during her eight-hour shift to give the baby milk and the older child some chips and juice, but she never realized the children were in distress.
Downing told authorities that it was not until she arrived at her Prince George County apartment later that day and laid her son on the bed that she realized something was wrong.
Prosecutors said Downing’s roommate called 911. When EMS crews arrived, they tried to perform CPR on the child, but he died. His baby sister, who was on life support, died four days later.
Downing later told authorities she had no one to care for her kids because her family was not an option.
"This was a young lady who made a bad decision," Taylor said. "But a bad decision based on the fact that she did not think she could go to anyone for help which regretfully was not true."
Most of Downing's 10-year sentence was suspended. Prosecutors argued she should have served more prison time than the 72 days she spent behind bars.
While Taylor pointed out the deadly, though unintended, consequences of Downing's reckless acts, defense attorney Vaughan Jones told the judge that Downing would learn nothing from jail time.
"The reality is you can give two days or you can give 200 years," Jones said. "The only punishment she’s feeling now is the loss of her babies.”
“She’s still getting counseling. And she’s been counseling ever since she’s been released from jail. And she might need counseling for years to come," he added.
Prosecutors hope this case will send a message to other parents.
“What I think we can do better from here on out is to make it part of a Public Service Announcement that under no circumstances any adult leave a child unattended for any extended period of time in a vehicle….period,” Taylor said.