In the Child's Best Interest

A legal technicality sent Donnie and DeAnne Fitts to a Houston court seeking to adopt Justin and Jacob Baker - again. Twelve jurors agreed that outcome would be the best for the children. Judge Bill Henderson didn't quite see it that way.

The jurors felt they had enough evidence to decide the Bakers weren't good parent material. On November 15, after a three-week trial, they voted unanimously to terminate the parental rights of both Brendon and Brandi, opening the way for the Fittses to adopt the children, again. DeAnne and Donnie wept in relief. When they packed their bags to go home to Seymour for Thanksgiving, they felt secure that their family would spend many more holidays together.

After their decision, Judge Henderson congratulated the jurors on a job well done. He told them they had cleared the way for the Fittses to adopt the children -- perhaps as soon as the following day. That's why the jurors were so confused when, two weeks later, they learned that the judge had invoked a seldom-used judicial privilege and overturned a portion of their verdict.

Some of them were more than confused -- they were furious. They believed they had worked hard to arrive at a fair decision, and the judge had wasted three weeks of their time. Harry Keller, the jury foreman and an engineer, complained that he lost about $3,000 in wages doing his civic duty. That would have been fine by him, if only the judge hadn't negated his three weeks of effort in ten minutes.

While Henderson left intact the jury's decision that Brandi's parental rights should be ended, he basically rejected their termination of Brendon's rights by determining that there was no adequate evidence to show that he had ever endangered Justin and Jacob.

The Fittses' attorney, Ellen Yarrell, filed a motion asking Henderson to reconsider his decision, and Keller and four other jurors showed up in the judge's court when he heard the motion on December 5. They asked Henderson to meet with them, but he refused. The judge stuck by his decision.

In the hallway afterward, reporters gathered around the different camps, circulating from one to another. In one corner, Harry Keller steamed. "Brendon Baker's been in jail half of [the children's] lives; he's tested positive for drugs. Is this someone who you want to raise two young children?"

In another corner, Brandi Baker vowed that she and the husband she is divorcing would change. Her hands shook while she answered questions.

"I want my kids back," she said. "I will do anything -- go to drug rehabilitation, anything E."

Nearby, Roger Chism, the court-appointed attorney for Brendon Baker, applauded Henderson's ruling, claiming the jury was biased against his ex-convict client and had acted on emotion and sympathy for the Fittses, rather than the facts.

Chism's remarks infuriated juror Judith Beaven when she heard him on the television news later that night. "This is not about the past, but about what they did when they knew they were going to court," says Beaven. "They had done nothing about counseling for their drug problem, there is no evidence of a steady job. They did nothing positive for trying to get the kids back."

Brendon Baker wasn't in the courtroom the day Henderson affirmed his decision. Neither were Donnie and DeAnne Fitts. Word had gotten out that the judge wasn't changing his mind, and they decided to stay home in Seymour with Justin and Jacob. Besides, when the Fittses returned from Houston after their last three-week stay for the trial, the boys had regressed, wetting their beds and becoming unusually clingy.

A discouraged Donnie Fitts just had one question: "How can you fight a judge?"

Bill Henderson says he's been misunderstood.
In a pre-New Year's interview in his chambers, the judge professed puzzlement at the jurors' reaction and the angry letters that had been pouring in to him from around the country. After all, he didn't take the children away from the Fittses and give them to Brendon Baker, and he agreed with the jury that it was in the best interest of the children for them to stay with the Seymour couple. Yet his decision has opened the door for Brendon to seek visitation rights and, one day, custody of the boys, while throwing the Fittses into a legal limbo.

Although the judge has indicated to lawyers for the Fittses and the children that he has no intention of granting visitation until after the Fittses' appeals are exhausted, Brendon Baker could file another motion at any time seeking visitation and custody.

While declining to address the specifics of the case while it is being appealed, Henderson made it clear that his decision was based on his belief that Brendon Baker's parental rights were abused in the adoption.

After Brandi Baker relinquished her rights to her children in August 1993, Blessed Trinity Adoptions attempted to contact Brendon Baker. He came to the agency the following month, but did not sign the papers to give up his own rights. Baker, in fact, now claims that the agency led him to believe that the children couldn't be adopted if he didn't sign the papers. Sallee Smyth, a lawyer for Blessed Trinity, says that Brendon heard only what he wanted to hear when he met with agency administrators. Whatever the case, in Texas it is perfectly legal for a parent's right to a child to be relinquished by default. And that's what happened to Brendon Baker's parental rights to Justin and Jacob.

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