Appeal from the Circuit Court of Union County. No. 94-J-13. Honorable Rodney C. Clutts, Judge, presiding.
Presiding Justice Hopkins delivered the opinion of the court: Welch, J., and Goldenhersh, J., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hopkins
PRESIDING JUSTICE HOPKINS delivered the opinion of the court:
Respondent, Edwin Aadil J., appeals from the trial court's order terminating his parental rights to his three minor children, C.M.J., M.M.J., and S.E.J., wherein the trial court found, pursuant to section 1(D) (j-1) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D) (j-1) (West 1994)), that respondent was unfit on the grounds that he murdered the children's mother, Jeanie B.-J. On appeal, respondent argues that the State failed to prove a prima facie case, and that even if the State proved their prima facie case, the trial court erred in allowing the children to be placed for adoption before respondent has exhausted his appeal rights in the State court system. Both arguments appear to present questions of first impression. For reasons we will more fully explain, we affirm.
On April 8, 1994, the Union County State's Attorney filed a petition for adjudication of wardship involving M.M.J., C.M.J., and S.E.J., respondent's three minor children. In the petition, the State alleged that the children were dependent, in that their mother died on April 3, 1994, "as a result of a severe beating and physical complications resulting from the same," and that respondent was incarcerated in the Jackson County Jail on charges of first degree murder and other felony charges "in connection with the death of Jeanie" B.-J., the children's mother.
On May 3, 1994, the trial court, Honorable Rodney A. Clutts presiding, conducted a hearing on the petition for adjudication of wardship. During that hearing, the State introduced the coroner's certificate of death of Jeanie B.-J., certified copies of the murder and other charges pending against respondent in Jackson County, Illinois, showing that respondent was charged in connection with the murder of the children's mother, and a certified copy of the docket sheet in the Jackson County criminal case against respondent. The court admitted the documents to show that the children were dependent due to their father's incarceration and their mother's death, and accordingly, the court made the children wards of the court.
On January 9, 1995, the State filed a petition alleging that respondent "is an unfit person as described in the Adoption Act, 750 ILCS 50/1D in that he has a conviction of first degree murder *** for the murder of Jeanie Ann [B.-J.], the mother of said minors." The petition requested the court to terminate all of respondent's parental rights to the children and to appoint a guardian for the children so that they could be placed for adoption.
On January 27, 1995, a hearing was held, Judge Clutts presiding, on the State's petition to terminate respondent's parental rights. At that hearing, the court admitted, without objection, a certified copy of a judgment and sentence, entered on November 15, 1994, in the Jackson County circuit court in the case of People v. Edwin A. J., showing that respondent was sentenced to natural life in prison without parole for his conviction of first-degree murder. When introducing this exhibit, the State explained that it was introducing the certified copy of the conviction and sentence pursuant to subsection j-1 of the unfitness statute (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(j-1) (West 1994)), which provides for a finding of unfitness when a parent is convicted of the first- or second-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1, 9-2 (West 1994)) of the other parent of the child. The prosecuting attorney stated:
"MR. WILKINS [State's Attorney]: *** We are offering [the certified copy of the judgment and sentence] to show that he has been convicted of first degree murder of the biological mother of these children. And for that reason, he should be found, as a matter of law, to be an unfit parent unless he can overcome that by clear and convincing evidence. I believe it shifts the burden of proof to him to prove that he is not an unfit parent by a very high standard."
Respondent's attorney did not object to the introduction of the certified copy of the judgment and sentence, and he responded to the State's argument regarding the burden of proof as follows:
"MR. CAVENESS [respondent's attorney]: Your honor, basically, I agree with what the State has said, in that I believe the burden is now upon us to overcome the presumption."
Respondent's attorney asked for a brief recess to confer with his client, which was granted. After the recess, respondent's attorney stated that respondent would not call any witnesses in his behalf, but he asked the court to reserve ruling on the petition to terminate respondent's parental rights "until such time as Mr. [J.'s] appeal processes have been exhausted."
The State objected to a reserved ruling, pointing out that the statute (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(j-1) (West 1994)) did not require the court to reserve ruling, that the court should apply the statute as written, and that the best interests of the children required the court to terminate respondent's parental rights immediately. The court allowed the parties to submit written authority on the issue in support of their respective positions, and on March 3, 1995, the court entered an order terminating respondent's parental rights. The court stated in the order that it found "that the minor's father has been convicted of the First Degree Murder of the minor's natural mother, in violation of Section 9-1 of the Illinois Criminal Code," (720 ILCS 5/9-1 (West 1994)) and that "pursuant to said conviction, *** Edwin [J.] is an unfit person, as defined under Section 50/1(D)(j-1) of the Illinois Adoption Act, such that his parental rights are hereby terminated." On ...