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In re Christopher J.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

December 4, 2017

In re CHRISTOPHER J. et al.

          Assigned on Briefs October 2, 2017

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Shelby County No. Z2918 Harold W. Horne, Special Judge

         Father appeals the termination of his parental rights to two children. The juvenile court found clear and convincing evidence that Father was criminally convicted of the intentional and wrongful death of the children's mother and that termination of parental rights was in the children's best interest. We conclude that the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support both findings. Thus, we affirm the termination of parental rights.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile Court Affirmed

          Autumn B. Chastain, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Christopher J.

          William R. Bruce, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, John P., Sherry P., and Diane P.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John W. McClarty and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE

         I.

         A.

         On July 21, 2015, John P., Sherry P., and Diane P. ("Petitioners") filed a petition in the Juvenile Court for Shelby County, Tennessee, to terminate the parental rights of Christopher J. ("Father") to his two children, Connor, born January 2005, and Ava, born April 2006. Petitioners sought to terminate Father's parental rights under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(g)(7), which allows termination of parental rights when one parent "has been convicted of or found civilly liable for the intentional and wrongful death of the child[ren]'s other parent."

         For context, we include a brief description of the events that precipitated this termination proceeding, as recounted by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. "At the time of her disappearance on April 16, 2013, [Heather P. ("Mother") and Father] had been married for over eight years and had two children. They had been separated since January 1, 2013, and had ongoing disputes as to custody of their children." State v. Jones, No. W2015-01028-CCA-R3-CD, 2017 WL 192146, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 17, 2017). After the separation, Father began a "months-long campaign of harassment of [his estranged wife], which became worse as she proceeded toward divorcing him and seeking custody of both children." Id. at *19. After initially denying any knowledge of Mother's whereabouts, Father told the police the location of her body. Id. at *11. Father was convicted "of the first degree premeditated murder of his estranged wife . . . and the abuse of her corpse, for which he was sentenced, respectively, to life imprisonment and two years to be served concurrently." Id. at *1.

         Upon appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction, finding

that a reasonable jury could determine that [Father] killed [Mother] to prevent her from testifying regarding child custody at the upcoming court hearing, that he strangled her to death, and that he undertook complicated concealment efforts to make it appear she had decided to abandon the children and disappear, later taking her body to a remote location and setting it ablaze, thus committing the first degree premeditated murder of the victim and concealment of her body.

Id. at *19.

         B.

         The juvenile court held a termination hearing on July 28, 2016. Although Father was incarcerated, he was represented by counsel and participated by telephone. The court also heard testimony from Diane P., the children's cousin and primary guardian. At the outset, without objection, the court took judicial notice of Father's criminal conviction. The remainder of the hearing focused on the best interest of the children.

         When Father was arrested for Mother's murder, the children were seven and eight years old. Diane P. and her parents filed a petition for temporary custody of the children, which was granted. By the time of the hearing, the children had been living with Diane P. for over three years. Diane P. had known the children all their lives, and their relationship had grown even stronger during guardianship. According to Diane P., the children were safe, happy, and loved. And she expressed a desire to ...


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