MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — A woman accused of feeding M&Ms that contained traces of peanuts to her disabled and allergic 8-year-old pleaded not guilty Wednesday to an upgraded charge of second-degree murder in the child's death.
Veronica Cirella, 31, of Plainview, was ordered held without bail in the July 23 death of her daughter, Julie, who was found only hours before she was set to be a flower girl in a cousin's wedding. Cirella had previously been charged with manslaughter.
Attorney William Keahon implored the Nassau County judge to release his client on bail, contending an autopsy has failed to determine a cause of death. But the judge cited Cirella's suicide attempt the day her daughter died and the fact that Cirella is now facing a potential life sentence as reasons to hold her in custody until her trial.
"I've never seen an indictment for murder, intentional murder, where the medical examiner cannot even give a causation of death, nor can he even say it's a homicide. It's bizarre," Keahon told reporters outside the Long Island courthouse.
District Attorney Kathleen Rice released a statement saying the grand jury heard from Cirella and several witnesses before returning the indictment on the second-degree murder charge.
"Every child's death arouses strong emotions, but prosecutors must evaluate the evidence objectively, and regardless of how difficult the defendant perceived her circumstances to be, taking her daughter's life was unjustified," Rice said.
After Cirella's arrest last summer, Assistant District Attorney Zeena Abdi said that Julie, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant and was confined to a wheelchair, had suffered an allergic reaction to something she was fed.
"There was a certain protocol that should have been followed as far as giving care for the allergy that she did not take," the prosecutor said at the time.
After discovering Julie had died, Cirella told police that she attempted suicide by taking both injections of insulin and drinking the medication, as well as taking an unknown quantity of painkillers. She also told police she attempted to strangle herself with an electrical cord. Cirella and her daughter were found by Cirella's mother-in-law, Dolores Cirella, who also lived in the Plainview home, when she checked on their preparations for the wedding later that afternoon.
A suicide note written by Cirella, found in court documents, indicates that the mother admitted feeding M&Ms to her daughter the night before she died as a special treat for her participation in the wedding the following day. She says in the suicide note that when she realized the child had eaten a product containing peanuts, which she read on the candy's label, she administered liquid Benadryl to counter the effects. She said the two eventually went to sleep and she found the child dead early the following morning.
Cirella also alludes in the suicide note to ongoing disputes with her now-estranged husband, Joseph, who had been arrested earlier the same week of the wedding on charges of violating an order of protection.
"Trust me things only would have gotten worse," Cirella writes in the note. "I could not risk loosing my daughter. I could not risk her being mistreated if he killed me. No one could take care of her the way I could."
Later in the note, she writes: "I had to give her a better life, which was to give her back to heaven. She does not deserve to be in pain whatsoever. I don't mind going to hell because I took my life to give her a better life which is in heaven where she can be free."
Keahon contended that Cirella's statements were those of a distraught woman who believed she had accidentally killed her daughter by feeding her the M&Ms. He also argued that there was no evidence of peanuts found in the child's body after the autopsy.
The suicide note makes no mention of whether Cirella knowingly fed the child something she knew would be harmful.
Several relatives and friends described Cirella outside court as a caring, devoted mother.
"She would never hurt her, never, never," her mother-in-law, Dolores Cirella, said.
"She baby-sits for my grandson," added sister-in-law Joanne Cirella. "If I ever thought she ever harmed her daughter, I would never even let her near him. He's 2 years old. She loves that boy to death."