Past case evidence allowed in current parental right cases, Wyoming Supreme Court rules

CHEYENNE - Past evidence of parental misconduct is admissible in later parental rights cases, the Wyoming Supreme Court said in an opinion issued Wednesday in a Laramie County case.

The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed the Laramie County District Court decision, with Judge Steven Sharpe presiding, in the case of Jeremy Michael Clark against the state of Wyoming, Department of Family Services.

The appeal examined whether evidence from past parental cases were admissible in current parental right trials, and whether the evidence was enough for the jury to decide to terminate Clark's parental rights.

Clark had originally objected to evidence from a previous juvenile case that involved different and nonbiological children being used in his current parental rights termination case. Clark claimed this evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial, and without it there was insufficient evidence to terminate his parental rights for his two children.

The high court ultimately found that there was enough evidence for the jury to decide that Clark should have his parental rights terminated, and the evidence from Clark's past case was admissible.

The Supreme Court found that it's already established that a parent's "fitness" has to be determined at the time of the trial, but that doesn't mean past history about the parent should be ignored. This means if the parent had a history of "unfitness," that should be considered, as well as the parent's behavioral patterns.

The high court also said Clark failed to show how, if this past evidence was admitted, it would unfairly prejudice him. The Supreme Court said this evidence just served to show the jury Clark's pattern of behavior and his parental "fitness."

Even though the past evidence was with different children, it doesn't make it irrelevant for the current case involving the two new children. If the Department of Family Services solely relied on this evidence, it might not have met its burden of proof. But this isn't what occurred, and the department had other evidence, as well, the Supreme Court stated.

The Supreme Court also rejected the idea that the jury didn't have enough evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion about the case, resulting in Clark's rights being terminated. However, the district court erred when it told the jury that a witness asserting their Fifth Amendment rights could permit the jury to find an "adverse inference" against Clark.

The Supreme Court found that the district court's comments on this matter didn't make it clear that the an "adverse inference" could only be drawn against that witness, and not Clark. Despite this error, the high court said the jury had enough other evidence to come to its conclusion regardless.

In addition, there was evidence that showed Clark failed to follow his case plan with his children in order to be reunited, and "failed to complete almost every requirement." With all of this information combined, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court's decision.