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In re S.J.J.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

May 3, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF S.J.J. and C.M.J., Children

         From the 407th Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2013-PA-02907 Honorable Peter A. Sakai, Judge Presiding

          Karen Angelini, Justice Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice.


          Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice.


         Anna[1] appeals the trial court's termination of her parental rights to S.J.J. (born in 2010) and C.M.J. (born in 2012). She argues (1) the trial court erred by denying one of her motions for continuance; and (2) there is legally and factually insufficient evidence that termination of her parental rights is in the children's best interest. We affirm the trial court's judgment.


         On December 4, 2013, Anna stabbed the children's father, Toni, numerous times in S.J.J.'s presence. C.M.J. was in her crib at the house during the incident. A police officer arrived at the house, banged on the door, and waited approximately ten seconds before opening the unlocked front door and going inside. The officer saw Toni lying on the floor, and Anna was kneeling over Toni with a knife in her hand.

         Toni told the officer he was trying to leave the house when Anna stabbed him numerous times; she waited twenty minutes before calling the police; and after the officer started knocking on the door, Anna stabbed him three more times. Toni asked the officer to call his brother to come get the children. An emergency helicopter transported Toni to a hospital where he later died from his injuries. Anna was arrested, and her sisters took the children to a hotel for several days. Anna's family refused to let appellees, Toni's parents and his brother Sam, see the children except through a videoconferencing application.

         On December 9, 2013, appellees filed suit seeking termination of Anna's parental rights and managing conservatorship of the children. The trial court appointed appellees as the children's temporary joint managing conservators and Anna as temporary possessory conservator, and ordered that the children be placed in appellees' care. The trial court also ordered Anna to make monthly child support to appellees, and ordered that the children receive therapy while the case was pending.

         Anna retained counsel, but counsel filed a motion to withdraw on March 18, 2014, and the trial court granted the motion. Anna retained other counsel, who filed a motion for continuance on May 5, 2014. The motion alleged Anna retained counsel "the day before trial, " Anna had just been indicted for murder, and counsel needed additional time to prepare [and] conduct discovery." The record does not contain an order on the motion for continuance, but the trial did not commence in May 2014. In June 2014, Anna's newly retained counsel filed a motion to withdraw, which the trial court granted.

         The trial court reset the trial date for October 6, 2014. In September 2014, the parties agreed to a continuance, and trial was again reset for January 12, 2015. The trial did not commence on January 12, 2015, and the record contains no filings until February 16, 2016, when appellees filed a motion for pretrial order. Appellees' motion alleged Anna pled guilty to murder and the trial court had appointed Anna counsel in this proceeding, but her counsel was suspended from the practice of law.

         The trial court appointed Anna different counsel on March 10, 2016. On June 23, 2016, Anna's counsel filed a motion for Anna to be bench warranted for trial. The motion stated a hearing on the merits of the case was set for August 8, 2016. The trial court's order on the motion also stated the trial was set for August 8, 2016.

         On August 5, 2016, Anna filed a verified motion for continuance in which counsel swore he was informed trial was set for October 24, 2016, but the trial date was accelerated to August 8, 2016, without his input. Counsel further swore he had five other settings the week of the trial; he had been out of town on a vacation for two weeks in July 2016; and Anna was transported to the Bexar County jail only four days before trial, at which time counsel was attending the Advanced Family Law Seminar. Counsel went to the Bexar County jail to meet with Anna immediately after the last day of the seminar, and "[b]ased on that meeting, [he] require[d] some additional time to prepare for the trial of this case."

         On August 8, 2016, the trial court heard Anna's verified motion for continuance. The trial court ruled the trial would commence with appellees' case in chief. To accommodate Anna, the trial court ordered that after appellees presented their case, court would recess on the matter until September 26, 2016, when Anna could present her case in chief. Counsel did not object, argue that counsel was not adequately prepared to respond to appellees' case, or argue that the recess would be insufficient to allow counsel adequate time to prepare Anna's case.

         Appellees presented their case from August 8, 2016, to August 10, 2016. On September 26, 2016, the trial court granted Anna a continuance, and reset the presentation of Anna's case for October 10, 2016. Anna presented her case from October 10, 2016, to October 12, 2016. Twenty two witnesses testified during the trial, and the trial court admitted a video recording and nearly seven hundred pages of exhibits. After closing arguments, the trial court took the case under advisement and thereafter signed a final judgment terminating Anna's parental rights. The trial court found Anna endangered the children's physical or emotional well-being and had a murder conviction for which she would be confined or ...

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