Sereniti's family reacts to possibility of lesser charges for Gurto

·6 min read

Jul. 30—Family members of Sereniti Jazzlynn-Sky Sutley are speaking out about the decision made by the Ashtabula County Prosecutor's Office to drop the majority of the charges against Joshua Gurto, who has been indicted in Sutley's death.

Gurto was initially charged with two counts of aggravated murder and three counts of murder, unclassified felonies, one count of rape, a first-degree felony, one count of felonious assault, a second-degree felony, and one count of domestic violence, a first-degree misdemeanor.

On July 19, prosecutors filed a motion to drop both aggravated murder charges and two of the three murder charges, the rape charge and the domestic violence charge, and amend the remaining murder charge to involuntary manslaughter.

Ashtabula County Prosecutor Colleen O'Toole said at the time some of the charges would have merged and some were redundant.

"We're looking to present exactly what the evidence presents, and get a conviction on exactly what the evidence will present at trial," O'Toole said last week. "We want to put our best case forward, and this represents it."

Family members of Sereniti are not pleased with the proposal.

"We are furious that they believe this is all this baby deserves," said Bobbie Blankenship, Sereniti's great-aunt.

She said she cannot put into words how angry family members are.

"We are going on five years of this mess," Blankenship said. "We're over it."

Blankenship said the family feels O'Toole is just trying to get the case over with as quickly as possible.

"We're devastated at this point," she said. "This baby would have been starting kindergarten this year, and we're still fighting with a court case."

Family members were hoping prosecutors would go to trial on the charges included in the indictment, and now they're hoping visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove, who has been assigned the case, won't allow prosecutors to drop the charges.

"We're optimistic and we're hopeful, but we always have that fear," Blankenship said.

Blankenship said family members were never consulted about the decision to drop the charges.

"We were actually supposed to have a status hearing that day, and we did not hear about this proposal until right before that status hearing, and then the status hearing got canceled," she said.

A group of family members have been following the case closely, she said.

"We feel like [Sereniti] doesn't have a voice right now," Blankenship said.

"Losing a baby for any family is devastating, but losing a baby how we lost this baby is just beyond devastating," Blankenship said. "We want to be able to look back at this child and remember the good times and not think about what happened to her. Unfortunately, after every setback, this is what we think about, unfortunately, we have to think about the bad parts."

Melissa Sutley, Sereniti's grandmother, said family members did not find out about the decision to drop charges until soon before the motion was filed.

Sutley said she is disgusted by the decisions and that the potential 11-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter is not enough punishment for Sereniti's death.

Sutley said O'Toole is not separating this case with another rape case, in which Gurto pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

"That 28 years is the other victim's justice, not Sereniti's justice," Sutley said. "I'm sorry. Eleven years is not enough, when that baby didn't even get 13 months to live."

The maximum potential sentence in this case would be 19 years.

"Nineteen years isn't enough for a baby's life," Sutley said. "It's just not justice for Sereniti's life, it's just not."

Sutley said her largest issue with the decision is the reduction of a murder count to involuntary manslaughter.

"We're praying that this judge is on our side and feels the same way that we do," Sutley said.

The case continuing as long as it has is devastating, Sutley said. She said she goes to every hearing in this case.

"One hundred percent, Colleen O'Toole lacks the skills, the ability, and most importantly, the confidence and compassion it takes to take something like this to trial," Sutley said. "My life will never be the same."

Sutley said it has been almost as traumatizing dealing with O'Toole as the original crimes. "And that says a lot," she said.

Sutley said on Wednesday she hadn't slept since she found out about the reduction in charges.

O'Toole reacted to the family's criticism on Friday.

"The child's death ... over four years ago was obviously a tragedy, I understand the family is rightly angered about," O'Toole said. "However, there is nothing I or anyone else can do to bring this child back, and this is a cold, hard fact that weighs heavily on me every day, as well as the diligent prosecutors in my office, with every tragic case, of which there are many.

"I share the pain, anger and confusion surrounding the tragic death of this child with the family and the public," she said. "We try cases every day, where there are children injured and sexually abused, and each one is handled with the requisite compassion needed, at a high cost to the mental health and to the feelings of all the prosecutors in my office.

"I would ask them to remember that we just tried several cases dealing with child abuse," O'Toole said. "Additionally, Mr. Gurto pled to the indictment for his fear of going to trial in the rape charge that he was just charged with."

O'Toole said conversations with Sereniti's family have been ongoing.

"They're well aware that this is what we're proceeding on," she said.

She said her office has conducted close to 25 jury trials this year, each of which has required empathy and sympathy for victims.

"I feel very badly for the family and I mourn their loss, and I understand their anger and confusion about how this case was handled," O'Toole said.

Records for the case have been sealed, and cannot be discussed until after it is resolved, she said.

"I'm asking people to withhold judgement until all the facts are known," she said. "We do a great job here, we're pretty diligent about prosecuting people who do horrible things to children to the fullest extent of the law. We will stand on our record."

Judges are responsible for setting trial dates, O'Toole said.

"I cannot force the judge to set it for trial. I do not control the docket, the judges do."

The COVID-19 pandemic has also delayed the case, she said.

O'Toole defended her decision to lower the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter.

"This case is not as simple as laying blame on one or two individuals," O'Toole said. "The death of this child lays in a series of errors and actions by multiple individuals and organizations that were charged with keeping the child safe. To make one person a scapegoat does not fit the facts in this particular instance, but I cannot, again, go into those because of the restraining order."

O'Toole said there are many things people don't know about this case.

"I don't blame them for being upset with the information they have," O'Toole said. "I'm just asking them to wait until they have all the facts, and they can judge for themselves."

Family members are planning a protest at the Ashtabula County Courthouse on Aug. 12 at 9 a.m.