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TPR, Sufficiency of Evidence — Jury Verdict That State Failed to Prove Grounds

State v. Lamont D., 2005 WI App 264

Issue Whether the State sufficiently proved grounds to support TPR such that the court should change the jury’s special verdict to the contrary.

Holding: “Because the record contains contradictory evidence and a key witness did not testify, and because it is possible the jury did not believe that the State proved the six-month period of abandonment, the trial court’s refusal to change the verdict answer or to grant a new trial was not ‘clearly wrong,’” ¶1.

¶19      We are not oblivious to the many contradictions in Lamont’s testimony, and we observe that the jury’s verdict might not have been our verdict. However, the first step in a termination of parental rights proceeding is the fact-finding hearing “to determine whether grounds exist for the termination of parental rights….” Wis. Stat. § 48.424(1). “During this step, the parent’s rights are paramount.” Sheboygan County DHHS v. Julie A.B., 2002 WI 95, ¶24, 255 Wis. 2d 170, 648 N.W.2d 402 (citation omitted). “During this step, the burden is on the government, and the parent enjoys a full complement of procedural rights.” Id.

¶20      In reaching our conclusion that the trial court’s holding should be affirmed, we note that the consequences of termination are profound, id., ¶23, as“‘[t]ermination of parental rights’ means that, pursuant to a court order, all rights, powers, privileges, immunities, duties and obligations existing between parent and child are permanently severed,” Wis. Stat. § 48.40(2). Additionally, “[b]ecause termination of parental rights interferes with a fundamental liberty interest, we apply strict scrutiny and require the state to show that termination is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” Monroe County DHS v. Kelli B., 2003 WI App 88 , ¶8, 263 Wis. 2d 413, 662 N.W.2d 360, aff’d, 2004 WI 48, 271 Wis. 2d 51, 678 N.W.2d 831. As required, we give the trial court’s decision substantial deference and conclude the trial court was not “clearly wrong” in refusing the State’s and the guardian ad litem’s requests. See Helmbrecht, 122 Wis. 2d at 110. Therefore, we affirm.

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