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Mere Possibility of Parole Insufficient to Prevent Texas Prisoners’ Parental Rights Termination

The Texas Supreme Court held that the mere possibility of parole within the two-year imprisonment requirement of § 161.001(1)(Q), Texas Family Code, was insufficient to prevent termination of a prisoner's parental rights.

William Keith M. is a Texas state prisoner and the biological father of H.R.M. He divorced Stacey M., the child's biological mother, in 2001 and has been incarcerated since January 2002. In 2004, Stacey married James W. They filed a petition to terminate William?s parental rights in state district court. Texas Family Code § 161.001(1)(Q) provides for the termination of parental rights if the parent is convicted and sentenced to serve at least two years from the date the petition is filed and is unable to provide for his or her child during that time.

In accordance with a jury's recommendation, the judge entered an order terminating William?s parental rights. William appealed. The court of appeals reversed the order, stating that the evidence was factually insufficient to prove a "firm belief or conviction" that William would still be imprisoned or confined two years after the petition was filed. Stacey appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that if the mere possibility of parole was sufficient to prevent a jury from forming a firm belief or conviction that a parent will remain imprisoned for at least two years, termination under subsection Q would occur only when the parent has no possibility of parole. This would impermissibly elevate the burden of proof from clear and convincing evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thus, the court of appeals had properly stated the standard for review but misapplied it when it held that the jury could not reasonably have formed a firm belief that William would not remain imprisoned for the two-year period, as he had testified that he was eligible for parole, would be reviewed for parole each year, and was in a pre-release program only available to prisoners who are within two years of release. The jury was free to disregard William's testimony. Furthermore, William had multiple convictions and sentences, had already been twice denied parole, and had thirteen years remaining on one of his sentences. Thus, his testimony about his parole chances was little more than conjecture.

The court rejected William's assertion that he provided care for H.R.M. by leaving her with Stacey. It also rejected William's assertion that his mother would help with the child's care, because neither William nor any member of his family had helped with H.R.M.'s care since she was born.

William also claimed he was denied effective assistance of counsel.

Applying the Strickland standard, the Supreme Court rejected that claim.

Because the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to determine factual sufficiency, it reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded the case for a review of factual sufficiency as to whether William would remain imprisoned during the two-year period and whether he could provide care for H.R.M. during that time under the proper standard of review. See: In re H.R.M., 209 S.W.3d 105 (Tex. 2006).

On March 8, 2007, on remand, the court of appeals found that after weighing all of the evidence, including William's testimony regarding his expectation of parole, "the evidence is factually sufficient for the jury to have reasonably formed a firm belief that [William] would be unable to care for H.R.M." Therefore, as there was sufficient support for both applicable requirements under § 161.001(1)(Q), the appellate court affirmed the termination of William's parental rights. See: In re H.R.M., Texas Court of Appeals-Houston, Case No. 14-05-00281-CV, 2007 WL 707553.

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Related legal cases

In re H.R.M.

In re H.R.M.