Opinions Released March 16, 2017

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

Atkinson v. State, No. 13-16-00344-CR (Opinion by Justice Rodriguez; Panel Members: Justices Contreras and Longoria)

In this appeal from a conviction for manslaughter, the court of appeals analyzed the sufficiency of the evidence.

At 6:00 P.M. on January 14, 2015, Dallas Talbot opened the front door of her home to find her grandfather, Calvin Jacob “Jake” Rathel, bleeding and clutching his stomach. Rathel stated that he had been drinking with Alfonso Atkinson—Talbot’s neighbor—when the two got into an argument and Atkinson stabbed him. Rathel died before the police arrived.

When Deputy Joe Guerra arrived on the scene, he noticed a trail of blood leading from Talbot’s driveway to Atkinson’s house, and he saw Atkinson standing on the front porch with blood on his pants and paint on his lips. Guerra detained Atkinson. Chief Deputy Charlie Strumley then came and questioned Atkinson.

During the interview—which was recorded on a dashcam—Atkinson gave inconsistent accounts of his day. Atkinson initially admitted he had been huffing paint and attributed the blood stain on his pants to meat, then later described the red stain on his pants as paint and denied huffing the substance. Similarly, Atkinson first said that his mother invited Rathel to stay at the family’s cabin the day before and that he had not seen Rathel since, then later claimed that he and Rathel dropped his mother off at the bus station that morning. Atkinson also stated that he had been barbequing inside his shed with his friend Joe Torres until 2:00 P.M. Torres, in turn, told the police that a friend of Atkinson’s named Jake had been at the barbeque, and that Atkinson had been wearing a military-style jacket that day with a knife in his pocket.

Atkinson gave consent for a search of his home, and Chief Strumley discovered a camouflage jacket with blood stains matching Rathel’s DNA. Texas Ranger Randy Aguirre also found a 9-inch knife in Atkinson’s front yard.

Aguirre later interviewed Atkinson again, at which time Atkinson said he met Rathel for the first time on the day of his stabbing and that he had not seen Rathel since the two dropped Atkinson’s mother at the bus station that morning. Atkinson claimed he spent the afternoon at a local river.

Later, Atkinson admitted to stabbing Rathel, but claimed it was in self defense because Rathel threatened Atkinson with a .22 rifle. Atkinson stated he simply swiped or “poked” at Rathel with a small steak knife while knocking the rifle away and placing the gun on the couch. Aguirre noted that the physical evidence did not support Atkinson’s story; the steak knife could not have caused the wide cut on Rathel’s stomach, and the rifle was in the closet rather than on the couch. Furthermore, there was no blood on the porch where Atkinson claimed the two men struggled.

The medical examiner, Adel Shaker, performed an autopsy and determined that Rathel died from a stab wound to the stomach. Shaker also noted the presence of other “defensive injuries” in the form of cuts on Rathel’s fingers and hands.

Investigator Joseph Shelton analyzed the trail of blood and determined that the blood began at Atkinson’s shed and led to Talbot’s house. Shelton also analyzed the .22 rifle, but found no DNA or fingerprints from Rathel or Atkinson.

Atkinson was indicted for first-degree murder and found guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter. Atkinson was sentenced to twenty years’ confinement.

Held: Evidence of a higher degree of mens rea supports a conviction for a lesser included offense. There was thus sufficient evidence to support the conviction for manslaughter, and it was not undermined by the State’s argument that the defendant acted intentionally, rather than recklessly.

Atkinson first claimed that the evidence was insufficient to establish that he recklessly killed Rathel as required for the offense of manslaughter. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals noted that proof of a higher degree of culpability or mens rea constitutes proof of the culpability charged. The court then recounted the numerous pieces of evidence establishing that Atkinson stabbed Rathel: Rathel’s dying declaration, Atkinson’s confession, the autopsy, the blood trail, and the forensic evidence on Atkinson’s clothes. Moreover, the multiple stab wounds and defensive cuts found on Rathel supported the jury’s conclusion that Atkinson killed Rathel with the culpable mental state. Atkinson’s inconsistent stories—which conflicted not only with the forensic evidence and the testimony of other witnesses, but also with his own prior accounts of what happened—did not support Atkinson’s self-defense argument. In fact, Atkinson’s admission that he “poked” at Rathel was direct evidence in support of the recklessness finding. The Thirteenth Court thus held that a rational factfinder could have found that Atkinson recklessly killed Rathel beyond a reasonable doubt.

Atkinson further argued that the State undermined its own case because during its closing statement the prosecutor argued that Atkinson intentionally and knowingly—not just recklessly—killed Rathel. However, again, the Thirteenth Court emphasized that a higher degree of culpability is sufficient to satisfy the lower culpability found by the jury.

The Thirteenth Court thus overruled Atkinson’s sole issue and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Read the Full Opinion Here

In re C.J.A., No. 13-16-00635-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rodriguez; Panel Members: Justices Contreras and Longoria)

In this appeal from an order involuntarily terminating a father’s parental rights, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed the sufficiency of the evidence.

In 2012, F.A. threatened his wife at knifepoint before abandoning her and her children, including F.A.’s son C.J.A. After that time, F.A. failed to support C.J.A. and ultimately divorced C.J.A.’s mother in 2013. While the divorce was pending, F.A. pleaded guilty to attempted indecency with a child and was sentenced to ten years’ confinement. C.J.A.’s mother was appointed the sole managing conservator of C.J.A.

C.J.A.’s mother then remarried and initiated a suit to terminate F.A.’s parental rights and thus allow her new husband—C.J.A.’s stepfather—to adopt C.J.A.

The trial court found that F.A. committed three acts in violation of Texas Family Code section 161.001(b)(1): (a) F.A. abandoned C.J.A. by leaving C.J.A. with another person without providing adequate support for at least 6 months; (b) F.A. failed to support C.J.A. in accordance with F.A.’s ability for at least 1 year; and (c) F.A. engaged in criminal conduct resulting in a conviction for attempted indecency with a child and confinement that led to an inability to care for C.J.A. The court determined that termination was in C.J.A.’s best interests, and entered an order terminating F.A.’s parental rights. F.A. appealed.

Held: The evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s order terminating F.A.’s parental rights.

The Thirteenth Court first reviewed the relevant law regarding the involuntary termination of parental rights. To involuntarily terminate a parent’s rights, the trial court must find by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the parent committed an act listed in section 161.001(b)(1) of the Texas Family Code, and (2) termination is in the best interests of the child. Here, F.A. challenged both requirements.

Acts in violation of Texas Family Code section 161.001(b)(1)

First, F.A. challenged the finding that he had performed acts prohibited by section 161.001(b)(1)—namely, F.A. denied that he (a) abandoned C.J.A. without providing adequate support for at least 6 months; (b) failed to support C.J.A. in accordance with his ability; or (c) engaged in criminal conduct resulting in confinement and an inability to care for C.J.A.

Regarding abandonment, F.A. conceded that he remained away from C.J.A. for 6 consecutive months, but argued that he did not leave C.J.A. without adequate support because he made arrangements for C.J.A.’s mother and stepfather to provide for the child. F.A. testified that he took C.J.A. school shopping and talked to C.J.A. on the phone prior to being incarcerated. F.A. further contended that C.J.A.’s mother kept C.J.A. from him. C.J.A.’s mother, on the other hand, testified that F.A. threatened her life at knifepoint before leaving the family, and that he neither visited nor provided support for C.J.A. after leaving. The Thirteenth Court held that the trial court could have believed C.J.A.’s mother’s testimony over F.A.’s testimony, and it deferred to the trial court’s credibility determination.

Moreover, the Thirteenth Court noted that merely leaving a child with another parent does not constitute the provision of care unless the parents have an explicit agreement between them. While this rule was generally applied in the context of incarcerated parents, it applied with equal force to F.A.’s situation. Here, there was no evidence of an agreement between F.A. and C.J.A.’s mother.

Thus, a reasonable factfinder could have formed a firm belief or conviction that F.A. abandoned C.J.A. without providing adequate support for a 6-month period, in violation of section 161.001(b)(1)(C). Since involuntary termination requires only one predicate ground, F.A.’s abandonment of C.J.A. in violation of section 161.001(b)(1)(C) was sufficient. As such, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals declined to review F.A.’s remaining challenges to the other predicate grounds for termination found by the trial court under section 161.001(b)(1).

Best interests of the child

Next, F.A. challenged the trial court’s finding that termination was in C.J.A.’s best interests. The Thirteenth Court analyzed the nonexclusive Holley factors to determine the child’s best interests.

(a) Desires of the child

First, regarding C.J.A.’s desires, there was testimony that C.J.A. spoke with his paternal grandmother and missed F.A.’s family. However, C.J.A. was only 7 years old at the time of the termination hearing and did not directly express an opinion. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals thus noted that the factor was of marginal value.

(b) Emotional and physical needs of and danger to the child now and in the future

Next, regarding the needs of and dangers to the child, F.A. testified that he intended to visit C.J.A., pay child support, and pay C.J.A.’s medical expenses when released from prison. However, the Thirteenth Court noted that, prior to F.A.’s incarceration, F.A. made only one support payment and wrote to the child only one time. Moreover, F.A. threatened C.J.A.’s mother at knifepoint and pleaded guilty to the crime of attempted indecency with a child (although not C.J.A.). These factors thus weighed in favor of termination.

(c) The parental abilities of the individual seeking custody

C.J.A.’s mother cared for her since her birth, and was named sole managing conservator in her divorce from F.A. in 2013. Since then, C.J.A.’s mother and stepfather had taken care ofC.J.A. and a home study of the environment described them as “mature, stable, sensible caring, and loving people.” C.J.A.’s stepfather intended to adopt C.J.A. after F.A.’s parental rights were terminated. In contrast, F.A. was convicted of attempted indecency with a child in 2013 and could be incarcerated until 2023. This factor weighed in favor of termination.

(d) The programs available to assist these individuals to promote the best interest of the child

Regarding programs available to assist F.A. and/or C.J.A.’s mother, there was no evidence in favor of either party. The factor was thus neutral.

(e) The plans for the child by these individuals

F.A. contended only that, if his rights were not terminated, his mother would support C.J.A. while he was incarcerated. However, there was no evidence of this alleged plan. In contrast, C.J.A.’s mother and stepfather filed the present suit to allow C.J.A.’s stepfather to adopt the child, and were already taking care of him. This alone was evidence of their plans for C.J.A. and weighed in favor of termination.

(f) The stability of the home or proposed placement

Citing all the reasons set forth above, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals summarily held that this factor weighed in favor of termination.

(g) The acts or omissions of the parent which may indicate that the existing parent-child relationship is not a proper one and any excuse for the acts or omissions

Numerous episodes indicated that F.A.’s relationship with C.J.A. was improper: F.A.’s violent threat against C.J.A’s mother, his abrupt departure from the household, his failure to provide support, and his incarceration for attempted indecency with a child. F.A. offered no excuses for this conduct apart from stating that he did not have the money to support C.J.A. These factors weighed in favor of termination.

In sum, the evidence was legally sufficient to support the trial court’s finding that the termination of F.A.’s parental rights was in C.J.A’s best interests.  Thus, the trial court’s order terminating F.A.’s rights was affirmed.

Read the Full Opinion Here