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Tag: ineffective assistance of counsel

2024 UT App 43 – domestic violence appeal

State v. Arce – 2024 UT App 43

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. JOSE FELIPE ARCE, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220006-CA Filed March 28, 2024

First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. MaynardNo. 191100762

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant, assisted by law student Ryder Seamons[1]

Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        A domestic dispute ensued on an emotional evening after Jose Felipe Arce had returned home from attending the birth of a child he believed he fathered as a result of an affair. Arce does not dispute that an argument occurred. He denies, however, that he hit or choked his spouse (Wife). This appeal centers on Wife’s statements near the time of the event and her complete recantation at trial. Arce claims numerous errors, including that the trial court should not have allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury, a deputy should not have been allowed to vouch for a particular version of Wife’s testimony, the State and a witness should not have used the word “victim” 29 times, and these errors cumulatively prejudiced him. Although we do not endorse the approach taken by the trial court or the parties, we affirm the convictions.

BACKGROUND

¶2           The State charged Arce with, and the jury convicted him on, one count of aggravated assault (domestic violence) and five counts of domestic violence in the presence of a child. At the center of this appeal are the different versions of events as related by Wife. We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict. See State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 2, 10 P.3d 346.

Alleged Assault and Wife’s Statements in the Subsequent Hours and

Days

¶3           In July 2019, Arce visited the hospital for the birth of a child whom both Arce and Wife believed he may have fathered with another woman. Wife described the day as an emotional one filled with tears. When Arce returned from the hospital, the couple decided to take their kids swimming at a hot springs resort. The couple talked about the difficult situation on the drive there, with more crying from Wife. On the drive home, their conversation escalated into an argument while the children slept in the back seat. After Arce asked for forgiveness, Wife said she had forgiven him for “many things” but “this was just too much.” Arce pulled the car over, and Wife said that the two “couldn’t be together anymore.” Wife later told police and neighbors that after pulling over, Arce hit and choked her.

¶4          Arce then drove the family home, and he told the children to go inside. Wife later told police and neighbors that, as they continued arguing, Arce hit her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled her hair, tried to choke her, and threatened to hit her with a beer bottle.

¶5          At this point, Wife ran to her neighbor’s (Neighbor) home. Neighbor could hear Arce yelling as she opened the door to find Wife out of breath, shaking, and crying. Wife was in a t-shirt with no pants. Neighbor and her husband (Neighbor’s Husband) believed Wife was seeking safety. Wife told them Arce was trying to hurt her. She also told the couple she wanted Arce out of the house. She then recounted the earlier fight that had happened during the drive home, including that after arriving home Arce had hit and kicked her and tried to choke her. Neighbor did not see any injuries on Wife. Neighbor’s Husband said that he saw “a red mark kind of on her collarbone on her left side.”

¶6          Neighbor’s Husband, a deputy sheriff, called police, who arrived fewer than ten minutes later. The responding officer (Deputy) interviewed Wife at Neighbor’s home that evening. Deputy testified that Wife appeared “extremely distraught,” “frantic,” and “emotionally distressed” and that she continuously wiped her eyes and nose from crying. During the interview, Wife told Deputy that Arce both struck and choked her. She also recounted that after returning home, Arce dragged her out of the car by her hair, threatened to hit her with a beer bottle, choked her, and slapped her. Deputy observed that the area under Wife’s right eye was “somewhat swollen” and that she had “some sort of reddish mark” on her collarbone that looked like it was beginning to bruise.

¶7          By that time, Arce had left the scene. Wife signed a request for a no-contact order and, with her children, went to emergency housing that the Deputy arranged. Wife also completed a lethality assessment. In the assessment, Wife indicated that she thought Arce might try to kill her. In an additional comment section, Wife noted that “having [Arce] at the home was a concern of safety for her.”

¶8          The following day, a police officer (Detective) interviewed Wife at her work. Wife again recounted the events, including Arce choking her, slapping her, grabbing her hair, throwing her to the ground, and threatening to hit her with a bottle. Wife also filled out a written statement during the interview with Detective recounting these same allegations. The top of the statement gave the following warning, “You are notified that the statements you are about to make may be presented to a magistrate or a judge in lieu of your sworn testimony at a preliminary examination. Any false statements you make and that you do not believe to be true may subject you to criminal punishment as a Class A Misdemeanor.” Wife signed the statement.

¶9          That same night, Deputy interviewed Arce by phone. Arce explained that he and Wife had taken the children to the resort “to have a good day” but Wife kept bringing up the infidelity and birth of the baby, so the two argued. Arce said that during the argument, he went through Wife’s phone, saw messages from another man, and asked, “[W]ho the f*** is this person?” When asked if he hit or choked Wife, Arce responded that he did not recall. Arce did, however, say that there was a miscommunication between them and that there was “some pushing and shoving.”

Wife’s Recantation and Testimony at Trial

¶10 The same day that Detective interviewed Wife, Deputy listened to a voicemail from Wife asking that all charges be dropped. When Wife later spoke with Deputy on the phone, she again asked that the charges be dropped. Wife explained that Arce “had a good job and that she needed help with the five children.”

¶11 At trial, Wife testified consistently with the prior statements she had made to law enforcement and her neighbors, however, she insisted that she made up the allegations of domestic violence against Arce. From the stand, Wife said, “This is why I wanted to just come up here because I hear all the charges and it’s really very selfish of me, you know. So this is why I’m sitting up here and I’m saying what really happened.” Wife testified that all the events occurred as she explained to law enforcement and the neighbors but that Arce never hit or choked her. Wife testified that after telling Arce they could not be together anymore, she told him to take her home, and he did. Wife testified that she opened the car door and sat on the edge of her seat while they continued arguing and yelling at one another but no physical altercation occurred.

¶12 When the State began asking her questions about police arriving the night of the incident and what she told them, the court stopped the questioning and excused the jury. The court explained to Wife that she had a right not to incriminate herself and that doing so would open her up to prosecution. The State asserted several times, “We won’t charge her.” The State also served Wife with a written notice of use immunity for purposes of the trial.[2] And the court provided her with the opportunity to speak with an attorney. Subsequently, Wife was appointed counsel.

¶13 Following a recess, the State asked that Wife be declared a hostile witness, allowing it to ask her leading questions, which the court granted. After speaking with his client, Wife’s counsel advised the court that Wife would be exercising her Fifth Amendment right moving forward. The State argued that the immunity it had offered Wife would protect her and that it was not the State’s intent “to ask the Court to hold [Wife] in this case in contempt” for refusing to testify. Wife’s counsel argued that the notice of use immunity was inadequate to protect her because it expressly did not grant immunity against a future perjury prosecution. The State again asked the court to treat Wife as a hostile witness. Arce’s counsel objected, arguing that the State knew weeks in advance that Wife might invoke her Fifth Amendment right. The State argued that knowing what Wife would do for weeks in advance was “a little bit of a stretch” and that its grant of use immunity was sufficient.

¶14        During further argument over whether to allow the State to treat Wife as a hostile witness, the State again said it would not seek to have the court hold her in contempt. The court ultimately granted the State’s request and received affirmation again from the State that it would not ask the court to hold Wife in contempt if she refused to testify.

¶15        The next day, the State retracted its written immunity offer and explained that it planned to ask Wife questions to which she could “choose to invoke the Fifth or to respond.” Wife’s counsel objected, arguing, “[T]he State’s going to try to . . . present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth . . . . [T]hat’s just them trying to testify to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court disagreed, explaining that anything the State said was not evidence and that Wife could not make a “blanket” invocation of her Fifth Amendment right.

¶16 When Wife took the stand again, she invoked the Fifth Amendment 47 times in response to the State’s questions.[3] The State’s questions included asking Wife about the same things she had addressed the day before, prior to invoking her constitutional right to silence. Arce’s counsel did not object to or seek to limit the State’s leading questions or Wife’s invocations; neither did he request a mistrial.

Other Testimony at Trial

¶17 During the trial, the State called Neighbor, Neighbor’s Husband, Deputy, and Detective to the stand; each recounted the events and gave consistent testimony of the statements Wife made to them concerning the events during the evening in question— including the physical abuse she allegedly experienced at the hands of Arce.

¶18 During Deputy’s examination, the State asked, “And so ultimately what did your investigation lead you to believe happened that night?” Defense counsel made no objection. Deputy responded, “Based off all my observations and interview, I believe that the victim had been struck and choked and that there was a domestic violence assault that occurred.” The State then asked, “And I just want to emphasize, why is it that you believed that this truly happened?” Defense counsel again made no objection. Deputy answered,

I believe it truly happened given a number of things. Mainly, when I spoke to [Wife], she appeared to be honest and genuine in the emotion that she was describing things with was clearly emotional distress, upset that I’ve seen. And not every case is the same. I’ve seen other people who have been victims of assault act similar, so that’s why I believed it. She appeared to be honest and genuine.

¶19 During Detective’s testimony, the State moved to admit into evidence Wife’s written statement that was given under penalty of perjury, which the court allowed.

¶20 The State also called two expert witnesses. A clinical psychologist testified about patterns of domestic violence and that individuals experiencing abuse frequently stay in the relationship and/or recant their previous stories. And a pediatric nurse practitioner testified about strangulation, including that in over 50% of strangulation cases there are no visible injuries.

¶21 Throughout the trial, the State, Deputy, and Detective referred to Wife as “the victim” 29 times. And the State and its witnesses—primarily the clinical psychologist—used the term “victim” or “victims” generally an additional 45 times. The State also referred to Wife as the “alleged victim,” primarily during jury selection but also sporadically throughout the trial.

Closing Arguments and Verdict

¶22        In closing arguments, the State argued that the jury should believe Wife’s original statements to her neighbors and police as those were made instinctually to keep her family safe from a threat rather than out of “selfish[ness] or insincer[ity].” The defense argued that Wife had every reason to hate Arce but she wanted to set the record straight about her lies concerning the events of that night and that the State’s case fell apart without her lies.

¶23        During deliberation, the jury asked for access to the State’s “questions on day 2 to [Wife] when she pled the fifth.” The court did not grant the request.

¶24        The jury convicted Arce on all charges. Arce now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25 Arce raises three issues on appeal. First, Arce argues that the trial court incorrectly allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury. We give trial courts “broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, including lay witness testimony, and will disturb [a trial court’s] ruling only for abuse of discretion.” State v. Perea, 2013 UT 68, ¶ 31, 322 P.3d 624 (cleaned up). But the trial court must correctly interpret and apply the law. Id. ¶ 30. We review “the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence” for correctness. Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 15, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023).

¶26 Second, Arce argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel when his counsel (1) did not seek to limit or remediate the continued questioning of Wife by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction; (2) failed to object to Deputy improperly opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s report the night of the incident; and (3) failed to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times during the trial. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

¶27 Finally, Arce argues that under the cumulative error doctrine, the evidentiary error and ineffective assistance of counsel Arce received should undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial. “We will reverse a jury verdict or sentence only if the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” State v. Lopez, 2019 UT App 11, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 950 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Evidentiary Ruling

¶28 Arce argues that the trial court improperly overruled Wife’s counsel’s objection to the State questioning Wife despite knowing that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Here, the trial court did not expressly say why it allowed the State, knowing Wife would invoke her constitutional privilege, to continually examine Wife. After Wife met with counsel and determined that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right moving forward, the State asked the court to declare Wife a hostile witness and allow the State to continue examining her with leading questions. Wife’s counsel objected to declaring her hostile, arguing that the State already knew she would invoke her right for each question, which would allow the State, in Wife’s counsel’s words, to “present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth” and to offer testimony “to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court responded that “anything [the State] says isn’t evidence, so it doesn’t matter.” And Wife’s counsel responded that the court should not allow it precisely because the State’s questions would not be evidence. The court disagreed and determined that the State could ask questions and that Wife could invoke her right to every question if she wanted to but she had to testify “if it [had] nothing to do [with a topic] that would incriminate her.” The court further determined that Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right could not be invoked in a blanket fashion and that she would have to invoke it for each question, as there may be some she could answer.

¶29 The State argues that regardless of the court’s reasoning, the court did not err because Wife waived her privilege by testifying earlier and recanting her story.[4] We note that the State did not make this argument during trial. Alternatively, the State argues that Wife never had the privilege to begin with because the State provided her with immunity.[5]

¶30 Notwithstanding each parties’ arguments, our review of the record indicates that Arce did not preserve this issue. It is “well within our prerogative to raise a preservation issue on our own initiative when it provides an alternative basis for affirmance, even if the State failed to brief the preservation argument.” State v. Malo, 2020 UT 42, ¶ 20 n.7, 469 P.3d 982. In Cook Associates, Inc. v. Warnick, 664 P.2d 1161 (Utah 1983), our supreme court confronted “[w]hether an objection by one party properly preserves an objection on appeal as to another party.” Id. at 1164. The supreme court followed what “[v]irtually every other jurisdiction that has considered the question has concluded,” which is that “an objection . . . by one or more parties at trial does not inure to the benefit of other parties who do not join in the objection.” Id. at 1164–65. In State v. Calliham, 2002 UT 86, 55 P.3d 573, two brothers charged with murder were tried together. Id. ¶¶ 1–3. Following their convictions, one brother (Brother 1) appealed. Id. ¶¶ 18–19. As part of his appeal, Brother 1 argued that the trial court’s decision to admit specific evidence was an error that violated his constitutional rights. Id. ¶ 32. However, our supreme court held that this issue was not preserved for appeal, as it was the other brother (Brother 2) who had objected—an objection which Brother 1 did not join at trial. Id. ¶ 33. “[Brother 1] did not join in [Brother 2’s] objections on the record or make any objection of his own,” thus preventing him from claiming on appeal that it prejudiced him or undermined his constitutional rights. Id.

¶31 Similarly, in the case before us, Arce was not the one who objected to Wife taking the stand, knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right for every question—it was Wife’s counsel who made the objection. Arce did not join that objection.[6]

Therefore, as in Calliham, Arce has not preserved the right to now claim on appeal that the court erred in its decision to allow Wife to testify, which in turn allowed the jury to hear her invocations 47 times.[7]

¶32        And the issue needed to be “preserved in order to give the trial court an opportunity to address the claimed error, and if appropriate, correct it.” Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, ¶ 11, 285 P.3d 1133 (cleaned up). Here, the trial court had no such opportunity. It is readily evident from our review of the record that the trial court was not focused on the impact these Fifth Amendment issues would have on Arce. Instead, the trial court ruled on this issue through the lens of its impact on Wife. Had Arce objected, the trial court may have fully engaged in an analysis of whether Wife’s Fifth Amendment right was waived or abandoned as the State suggests. But Arce made no such objection, and therefore the court engaged in no such analysis.

¶33        “As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal,” and it is “well-established” that this “preservation requirement applies to every claim, including constitutional questions.” Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 48, 443 P.3d 1250 (cleaned up). Despite Arce’s arguments that he preserved this issue, the record does not support his assertions, as “a party must raise [the issue] before the [trial] court specifically, in a timely manner, and with support by evidence and relevant legal authority, such that the issue has been presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on it.” Id. (cleaned up). As discussed, the record does not reflect an objection from Arce on the issue but instead from Wife, which did not allow the court to review the issue as it pertains to Arce. Therefore, the issue is not properly preserved, and we do not consider the merits of his claim.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶34        “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must meet the two-prong Strickland test: (1) counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice.” State v. Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9, 454 P.3d 862 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687–88 (1984)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 803 (Utah 2020). “[D]eficient performance is not determined in a vacuum; rather, it involves asking whether the strategy [counsel] employed was that of a reasonable, competent lawyer in the real-time context” of a trial. State v. Wilkes, 2020 UT App 175, ¶ 24, 479 P.3d 1142, cert. denied, 485 P.3d 944 (Utah 2021). “However, even where a court cannot conceive of a sound strategic reason for counsel’s challenged conduct, it does not automatically follow that counsel was deficient. . . . [T]he ultimate question is always whether, considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. And a defendant establishes prejudice by showing “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” State v. Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 8, 501 P.3d 1205 (cleaned up). “That is, the defendant’s showing must undermine our confidence in the outcome.” Id. (cleaned up). The impact of such alleged errors must “be a demonstrable reality.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶35        “Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be met to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, we need not always address both prongs.” Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). “And if it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice that course should be followed.” Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 7 (cleaned up). Given the likelihood that similar events to those of this case can and will arise before the trial courts of this state, we address counsel’s alleged deficient performance, although we ultimately determine that Arce’s claims fail for lack of prejudice.

  1. Deficient Performance
  2. Invoking the Fifth Amendment

¶36 In addition to Arce’s arguments already discussed above regarding Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right, Arce argues that his counsel acted deficiently by not seeking to limit or remediate the State’s continued leading questions and Wife’s invocations by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction. Based on the reasoning in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), and In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176 (6th Cir. 2022), competent counsel could reasonably choose not to take any of these actions, as Wife had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by having voluntarily testified about the matter in question. A “witness . . . may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell, 526 U.S. at 321. “When the witness testifies, the privilege is waived for the matters to which the witness testifies.” In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th at 193 (cleaned up). Thus, Arce’s counsel, and correspondingly the trial court, could have concluded that Wife did not have the right to invoke the privilege. Therefore, we determine that Arce fails to show deficient performance.[8]

¶37 Arce claims his counsel should have objected and pointed the court to rule 403 (excluding evidence which is substantially more prejudicial than probative), rule 510(c) (disallowing comment by a judge or counsel about, or a factfinder making an inference from, the invocation of a privilege), or rule 611(a) (allowing a court to control the examination of witnesses so as to avoid wasting time or the harassment or embarrassment of a witness) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Arce makes no effort, however, to provide us with the context of Wife’s 47 invocations or the depth of her earlier testimony.[9] While Arce discusses Wife’s trial testimony prior to the court’s interruption to allow her to consult her counsel, he provides the court no comparison of that testimony with the subject matter of the questions asked on cross-examination when she began invoking the Fifth Amendment. As a result, the briefing leaves us with no understanding about whether all 47 invocations were directly addressing matters about which Wife had already testified—particularly her recantation. Assuming the questions were simply cross-examination of statements made earlier in trial, Arce’s counsel would have no basis for an objection because the privilege would be waived. Furthermore, without an understanding of the depth of Wife’s earlier testimony, we cannot gauge whether 47 invocations corresponded in an impermissible or potentially prejudicial way to Wife’s prior trial testimony. Within the confines of the briefing provided to us, we cannot fault Arce’s counsel for failing to object or make other efforts to limit the testimony.

¶38        Given that there is an obvious basis to believe that Wife no longer possessed a Fifth Amendment privilege and where the briefing does not delineate any context for the questions for which the privilege was invoked, Arce has not overcome the presumption that his counsel acted reasonably, and we cannot conclude that Arce’s counsel was objectively deficient in his representation. State v. Hart, 2020 UT App 25, ¶ 20, 460 P.3d 604 (stating that to prove deficient performance a defendant must overcome a “strong presumption that his trial counsel rendered adequate assistance” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 805 (Utah 2020). We acknowledge that there certainly could be circumstances where compelling a witness to invoke a privilege 47 times would be troubling, but we can reach no conclusion about counsel’s failure to object to these questions here.

  1. Witness Opining and Vouching

¶39        Arce further argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to Deputy opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s statement the night of the incident. Rule 608(a) of the Utah Rules of Evidence “permits testimony concerning a witness’s general character or reputation for truthfulness or untruthfulness but prohibits any testimony as to a witness’s truthfulness on a particular occasion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 44, 248 P.3d 984 (cleaned up); see also State v. Adams, 2000 UT 42, ¶ 19, 5 P.3d 642 (detective testifying “he did not believe [the victim] was coached” was inadmissible vouching); State v. Jones, 2020 UT App 161, ¶ 14, 478 P.3d 1055 (per curiam) (“[A]dmission of testimony that bolsters the credibility of another witness’s testimony on a particular occasion is improper.”); id. ¶ 18 (officer testifying regarding interview techniques for domestic violence victims did not violate rule 608 because he did not opine on the victim’s truthfulness on a particular occasion); State v. Lewis, 2020 UT App 132, ¶ 26, 475 P.3d 956 (police sergeant describing variations he sees in victims’ statements when multiple accounts are given was not bolstering, as “he did not directly opine on [the victim’s] credibility”); State v. Cegars, 2019 UT App 54, ¶¶ 23–24, 440 P.3d 924 (school counselor testifying that she did not believe the victim would fabricate allegations was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Vail, 2002 UT App 176, ¶¶ 15, 17, 51 P.3d 1285 (detective testifying that two victims of child sexual abuse “exhibited the indicators that she equated with trustworthiness” was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Stefaniak, 900 P.2d 1094, 1095 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (social worker testifying that a victim of abuse “seemed to be quite candid” in an interview was inadmissible vouching (cleaned up)). For example, an officer cannot comment on whether a witness appeared “to be genuine” during an interview, as it is a direct comment on the witness’s truthfulness and clearly violates rule 608. State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 31, 317 P.3d 452 (cleaned up). We emphasize again today that the State’s use of a law enforcement officer’s testimony for bolstering and vouching in this manner is inappropriate. We perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

¶40 But even so, Arce can prevail only if he establishes both deficient performance and prejudice. And for the reasons set forth in Part II.B, we conclude that he was not prejudiced by this deficient performance.

  1. Referring to Wife as “the Victim”

¶41        Finally, Arce argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times in front of the jury. Our supreme court “recognize[s] the gravity of referring to witnesses as victims during a trial.” State v. Vallejo, 2019 UT 38, ¶ 102, 449 P.3d 39. In cases, such as the one before us, “where a defendant claims that the charged crime did not actually occur, and the allegations against that defendant are based almost exclusively on the complaining witness’s testimony—the trial court, the State, and all witnesses should be prohibited from referring to the complaining witness as ‘the victim.’” State v. Devey, 2006 UT App 219, ¶ 17, 138 P.3d 90. Though in this case we do not exclusively rely on such testimony because there was a “sort of reddish mark” on Wife’s collarbone and Arce told Deputy there was “some pushing and shoving,” we still restate today that the action of referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” by anyone in front of the jury is inappropriate. Again, we perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

  1. Prejudice

¶42        Ultimately, Arce has not shown that any of these alleged errors prejudiced him. There is not a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel failing to object further to the State’s questioning of Wife, moving to strike, or asking for a curative instruction, the result of Arce’s trial would be different. As mentioned, the jury heard testimony from four witnesses, each of whom told the same story, namely, that Wife said Arce hit and choked her that night. The testimony of these four witnesses matched Wife’s own words in the statement she gave to Detective. Furthermore, the reason Wife provided to Deputy for dismissing the charges was not that she had lied but that she needed Arce to keep his job as well as his help with their children. As we point out above, even Arce in his statement to Deputy admitted there was “some pushing and shoving,” which is inconsistent with Wife’s recantation. And Arce did not explicitly deny that he hit, kicked, or choked Wife, instead stating only that he could not recall doing so. Most reasonable jurors would think that physical assault is something that one would remember having committed. Furthermore, and perhaps most convincingly, Wife’s own statement to Detective was entered into evidence for the jury to read. In short, finding that none of these alleged errors undermines our confidence in the outcome of this case, each of Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fails for lack of prejudice. Moreover, because none of these alleged errors were sufficiently prejudicial alone, we, for the same reason, conclude that the errors do not cumulatively undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial.[10]

CONCLUSION

¶43 Arce’s claim that the court erred by allowing the State to repeatedly compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of the jury fails because the issue was not preserved. Furthermore, Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail because his counsel’s failure to object to Wife’s invocations, Deputy’s vouching for Wife’s credibility, and repeated references to Wife as “the victim” do not present a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel’s failure the result of the proceeding would have been different. We therefore affirm Arce’s convictions.

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[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] A “grant of use immunity [prohibits] any prosecutorial use of [a witness’s] testimony or evidence gained from it” against the witness. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 17, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017).

[3] The State argues that she invoked the Fifth Amendment 45 times, but the discrepancy of two invocations is not dispositive in this case, so we will use Arce’s number moving forward.

[4] Though we make our decision on preservation grounds, it appears the State is correct that a witness cannot testify about a subject and later invoke a Fifth Amendment privilege in order to avoid cross-examination on that same topic. See Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999); In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176, 193 (6th Cir. 2022). This issue is addressed further below. See infra ¶ 36.

[5] The State argues that a valid claim of privilege “turns in part on the likelihood of future prosecution.” A witness may not “employ the privilege to avoid giving testimony that he simply would prefer not to give,” Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 560 n.7 (1980); instead, the witness must face real—not remote or speculative—dangers, Zicarelli v. New Jersey State Comm’n of Investigation, 406 U.S. 472, 478 (1972). Therefore, a grant of immunity nullifies the witness’s privilege as it forecloses the possibility of subsequent prosecution. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 18, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017). Here, the State argues that while it did withdraw the written immunity offer, the offer was “irrelevant” as the State put on the record several times that it would not seek to have the court hold Wife in contempt for refusing to testify. We do not agree and fail to understand how a promise not to seek to have a trial court hold Wife in contempt is sufficient to rise to the level of granting her “effective blanket immunity,” as the State argues. Wife still faced the very real danger of prosecution for perjury, for which the State offered her no protection. Thus, the State did not provide Wife with immunity—either written or through promises not to charge her with contempt—and Wife’s Fifth Amendment privilege remained intact. However, the State is likely correct that the right had been waived for subjects about which she freely had already testified. And, as discussed, this issue was not preserved, so there is no need for further consideration of whether allowing the State to continue questioning Wife was an error and, if so, whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Arce absent the questioning.

[6] Arce acknowledges that it was Wife’s counsel rather than his own who made the objection to Wife taking the stand knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Despite this, Arce argues that the issue is preserved by primarily relying on Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, 285 P.3d 1133. But Kell is distinguishable from the present case. In Kell, the question was whether an issue was preserved when the State opposed a criminal defendant’s rule 60(b) motion and the criminal defendant did not respond to the State’s arguments yet later sought to appeal the decision. Id. ¶¶ 9– 10. The State and a criminal defendant are not in an analogous adversarial position to the criminal defendant and nonparty witness, Wife, present here. Kell is simply inapposite.

[7] Arce does not claim the application of any exception to preservation.

[8] Arce points to State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, 361 P.2d 104, for us to consider. But Bond is not particularly helpful here. The witness in Bond did not attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering a question regarding a subject about which he had testified previously. Id. ¶ 10Also, the analysis in Bond must be viewed in context. In Bond, the Utah Supreme Court was reviewing the denial of a motion for a mistrial—a trial court decision reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard—and an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. ¶¶ 13, 22. Thus, unlike the case before us, Bond does not address these issues as evidentiary rulings.

[9] We acknowledge that Arce has appended a transcript containing the invocations to his brief. But beyond the appendix, Arce’s brief makes no attempt to address the context of the invocations—referring to them only as a whole rather than providing any information as to the subject matter of the questioning that provoked them. Arce does not attempt to explain, for example, if one, two, or three questions might be permissible. Neither does he explain at which point the line would have been crossed to render his counsel’s inaction objectively unreasonable.

[10] “The cumulative-error doctrine requires us to reverse if (1) we determine, or assume without deciding, that two or more errors occurred and (2) we determine that the cumulative effect of those errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” ConocoPhillips Co. v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2017 UT App 68, ¶ 30, 397 P.3d 772.

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2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward – plea agreement, ineffective assistance

2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS, STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. BENJAMIN LEE HEWARD, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221055-CA Filed March 28, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund No. 201400462

Scott F. Garrett and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and Andrew F. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Benjamin Lee Heward pled guilty to two charges of aggravated sexual abuse of his two minor daughters. As part of his plea agreement, the State and the victims promised to “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of two concurrent terms of six years to life. At sentencing, the prosecutor argued against probation and recommended a sentence of six years to life, but the two victims testified they were having second thoughts about the arguably lenient sentence, a change that the prosecutor attempted to explain. Ultimately, the court followed the recommendation of Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P), sentencing Heward to fifteen years to life on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently. Heward now maintains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement when he made statements about probation and the feelings of the victims, and he asserts that the district court should have acted sua sponte to remedy the situation. Heward also asserts that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance in failing to object to the prosecutor’s comments. We reject Heward’s claims of error and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2          Heward was charged with ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child for the admitted abuse he inflicted on his two minor daughters over a number of years. Heward pled guilty to two of the aggravated sexual abuse charges: (1) rubbing his clothed genitals over the clothed genitals of his older daughter in an act of simulated sexual intercourse and (2) rubbing his younger daughter’s genitals skin to skin with his hand.

¶3          As part of the plea, the State agreed to dismiss the rape charge and the other eight aggravated sexual abuse charges. In addition, the plea agreement indicated that the “State and the victims” would “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of six years to life and lifetime sex-offender registration. In contrast, AP&P recommended that Heward be sentenced to fifteen years to life on each count.[1]

¶4          At sentencing, the prosecutor stated, “I know that based on . . . Heward’s statement and the recommendation from his sex offender treatment therapist he’s going to be asking for probation.” The prosecutor acknowledged there was a “very, very narrow exception” to the mandatory imprisonment required for aggravated sexual abuse of a child. See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(7) (stating that imprisonment is mandatory). That exception allows a court to “suspend execution of sentence and consider probation to a residential sexual abuse treatment center only if,” along with numerous other conditions, the perpetrator’s offense “did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm.” Id. § 76-5­406.5(1)(b). To this point, the prosecutor argued,

Heward needs to show it’s in the best interest of the public and specifically the child victims that the Court should sentence him to probation instead. He can’t show that, Judge. He needs to show that these offenses did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm. He cannot show that, Judge. It’s clear based on the victim impact statements from both [of Heward’s daughters] that they are suffering severe psychological harm, continued psychological harm for what their father did to them.

¶5          The prosecutor then emphasized that Heward’s abuse would make it “extremely difficult” for his victims to have a “sense of peace” and that they were “going to be affected” for “the rest of their lives” because Heward “used them as sexual objects.” The prosecutor also pointed out that certain sex offenses involving children in Heward’s juvenile record indicated that he represented a danger to the community. The prosecutor concluded by saying, “He’s going to tell the Court right now that he should be granted probation because he’s not a threat to the community. The Court should disregard that.”

¶6          The prosecutor then gave Heward’s victims time to speak. The older daughter stated that Heward’s abuse had a “devastating impact” on her life, that she was “still suffering from his actions,” and that she was “always having to look over [her] shoulder making sure he’s not around” her. This daughter, after recounting the “painful memories” and her continuing trauma, stated that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” She also noted that Heward had violated protective orders “[a]gain and again” and even at the sentencing hearing, he had “force[d]” and “manipulated” her and her sister “into an embrace with him.”

¶7          The younger daughter also spoke. She said that as a result of the abuse, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She shared that she continued to “feel uncomfortable leaving [her] room” because she was afraid that she would “get raped and sexually assaulted again.” She further revealed that whenever someone touches her “unexpectedly,” she is “startled” and “can physically feel it all happening again.”

¶8          After Heward’s victims finished speaking, the prosecutor expressed that he wanted “to talk about what the State’s recommendation [was] going to be.” He explained that “[i]n speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender” registration. Then the following exchange took place:

Prosecutor: I spoke with [the victims] this morning, if they still feel the same way, understanding that I’m bound to the recommendation of 6 to life, that I thought it was important for the Court to know where the victims stand today. I asked them how they still felt about the 6 to life. They told me—

Court: May I say, . . . you bound yourself to 6 to life?

Prosecutor: Yes, sir, that is the State’s recommendation.

Court: Okay, . . . you need to be very careful you don’t say anything now that could be you trying to argue against that deal. So be circumspect in your comments.

Prosecutor: Judge, I’m not arguing that it should be anything else. I think the Court should be fully informed about where the victims are. The victims aren’t party to this agreement, but victims do have a right to be heard, and that can be through their own statements or through that of the prosecutor. They felt like they were manipulated by the defendant to feel sorry for him, and the Court did hear those statements today. They felt manipulated, and that’s why they wanted 6 to life. That’s the reason for the plea offer that was given, Judge. The State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.

¶9          Heward’s attorney (Counsel) then spoke about mitigating factors that the court should consider in sentencing. Counsel agreed with the State that Heward “probably [was] not qualified” for the “statutory exception that allows for probation.” Counsel then concluded, “We would concur with the recommendation of the two concurrent 6 years. That’s what we’ve all agreed to, and that’s what I’d recommend.”

¶10 Other witnesses, including Heward’s mother and his therapist, spoke about various mitigating factors. And Heward himself spoke, stating that he was “not asking for probation.”

¶11        The court was not persuaded by the recitation of mitigating factors:

[I]t evidences a higher level of depravity when the victims are your biological children, and this conduct went on for years. . . . [T]hat’s also an aggravating circumstance. It’s an aggravating circumstance that you violated the protective order.

Frankly, based on the information that’s before me, it seems to me that you’ve minimized the conduct that you’ve been involved in. I’d be more inclined to accept the versions that [your daughters] provide in terms of what happened.

Based on all of that, I’m going to follow the AP&P recommendation. I don’t think that I have the discretion to sentence you to less than 15 years in prison. That’s the sentence of the Court. You’ll be sentenced to [two concurrent terms] of 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison.

¶12        Heward appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶13        Heward first argues that the “prosecutor breached the plea agreement by failing to affirmatively recommend a prison sentence of six years to life and by implying the State regretted entering into the plea agreement.” Heward acknowledges that this claim was not preserved and asks that it be reviewed under both plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 9, 239 P.3d 285 (recognizing that an unpreserved alleged breach may be reviewed for plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel). To demonstrate plain error, Heward “must show that: (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 10, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). And “when a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” Id. ¶ 11 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS
I. Plain Error

¶14 Heward complains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement in two separate but related ways. First, Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life as indicated in the plea agreement. Second, Heward argues that the prosecutor then “compounded” the breach by bringing up the victims’ apparent change of heart about the plea agreement, implying that the State regretted entering the plea agreement. And Heward asserts that the district court “should have been aware of the errors the prosecutor made.” In such cases, our court has focused on whether a prosecutor’s statements were egregious enough to require a district court to act sua sponte to remedy the situation. See State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 119, 393 P.3d 314 (“[N]one of [the prosecutor’s] statements was so egregiously false or misleading that the judge had an obligation to intervene by raising an objection sua sponte.”); State v. Hosman, 2021 UT App 103, ¶ 38, 496 P.3d 1162 (questioning whether a prosecutor’s statements were so egregious that it constituted plain error for the court to fail to intervene sua sponte to remedy the harm), cert. denied, 502 P.3d 270 (Utah 2021).

¶15 To succeed on this claim, Heward “must prove that the State actually breached the plea agreement, that the breach should have been obvious to the district court, and that had the district court recognized and remedied the breach, there is a reasonable likelihood that [his] sentence would have been more favorable.” State v. Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 15, 372 P.3d 715, cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016). And “if any one of these requirements is not met, plain error is not established.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶16        “[W]hen a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.” Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971); accord State v. Lindsey, 2014 UT App 288, ¶ 16, 340 P.3d 176. Accordingly, a “plea agreement is breached when the State fails to act in accord with its promise.” State v. Samulski, 2016 UT App 226, ¶ 13, 387 P.3d 595, cert. denied, 390 P.3d 725 (Utah 2017). However, “when a defendant alleges that the State violated a plea agreement by making inappropriate statements at sentencing, as [Heward] does here, we consider the prosecutor’s statements in the context of the entire hearing.” Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 16 (cleaned up).

  1. Affirmative Recommendation

¶17        Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life agreed to in the plea. The gist of Heward’s argument is that “[i]n order to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life, the prosecutor was required to make an effort to position the recommendation as one that is ‘in the interests of justice.’” (Quoting Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4)(b).) Heward asserts that, instead, the prosecutor “utterly failed to make an argument or present the judge with any information that a sentence of six years to life was in the interests of justice.” Heward complains that the prosecutor “focused solely” on the limited discretion of the judge, certain aggravating factors (namely, the psychological harm suffered by the victims, Heward’s juvenile record, and Heward’s alleged violation of a protective order), and the victims’ alleged withdrawal of support for the plea agreement. “By emphasizing only aggravating factors in his argument,” Heward asserts, “the prosecutor failed to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life,” resulting in “a clear breach.” We are not persuaded that any breach, let alone a clear one, occurred when the prosecutor highlighted these factors.

¶18        First, the prosecutor’s statements about aggravating factors were made not in reference to the plea agreement but in the context of arguing that Heward should not be offered probation under the limited statutory exception to mandatory imprisonment. By pointing to the severe psychological harm inflicted on the victims and Heward’s juvenile record, the prosecutor was explicitly arguing that Heward was not eligible for probation under the statute. And Heward’s violation of the protective order was also mentioned in the context of denying probation—specifically that Heward should start serving his sentence immediately. As the State points out, the prosecutor’s remarks about the protective order violations “weren’t about what Heward’s sentence should be, but when he should begin to serve it.” Arguing against probation and for immediate incarceration— even if it necessarily required the prosecutor to reference some aggravating factors relevant to other aspects of Heward’s sentencing—was consistent with the State’s recommendation of six years to life. After all, the plea agreement made it perfectly clear that the State would “affirmatively recommend” a prison term, a recommendation that obviously entitled the prosecutor to argue—even forcefully—against probation by highlighting specific reasons Heward did not qualify for probation.

¶19 Second, and more to the point, an “affirmative recommendation” does not require any particular measure of enthusiasm for an agreed-upon sentencing recommendation. While a prosecutor may not “undermine” a promised sentencing recommendation by expressing “personal reservations at the sentencing hearing,” the “prosecutor has no responsibility to make such recommendations enthusiastically.” State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26, 239 P.3d 285 (cleaned up); see also Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 18 (“[The prosecutor] described the circumstances of the crimes to underscore [the absence of mitigating factors], and at the conclusion of this discussion, he accurately, if not enthusiastically, described the recommendation the State had agreed to make for concurrent sentences . . . . [This] context supported a reasonable interpretation that comported with . . . the State’s obligations under the plea agreement.”).

¶20 Notably, the plea agreement does not contain any provisions regarding how the State was to fulfill its promise to “affirmatively recommend” the six-years-to-life sentence. It offers no guidance on how enthusiastically or forcefully the prosecutor had to argue in favor of the agreement. Nor does it indicate, as Heward argues on appeal that it should, any kind of obligation on the part of the prosecutor to highlight mitigating factors. And while it is true that the prosecutor did not approach the recommendation with gusto, it is even more clear that the prosecutor did affirmatively recommend the agreed-upon sentence two distinct times. The prosecutor explicitly declared that six years to life “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) And when cautioned by the court to “be circumspect” in his comments to avoid saying “anything” that “could be . . . trying to argue against that deal,” the prosecutor clarified that he was “not arguing that it should be anything else” and that the “State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.” (Emphasis added.)

¶21 Moreover, these recommendations were “affirmative” in that the prosecutor did more than merely submit the matter without any argument against the defense’s recommendation; to the contrary, the State expressed its affirmative assent to the prison term agreed upon in the plea agreement. See State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶¶ 13–17, 436 P.3d 298 (distinguishing between situations in which a plea agreement merely “secured the State’s promise not to oppose” the defense’s recommendation and situations in which a plea agreement requires the State to “affirmatively argue for” a particular sentence), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). In this case, the prosecutor made an effort to positively express the State’s assent to the term of six years to life by declaring that the term “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) That the assent was expressed without great enthusiasm does not diminish that it was in the affirmative.

¶22 Thus, the prosecutor’s statements, especially when taken as a whole, represent a consistently unambiguous affirmation at sentencing that the State stood behind its recommendation of six years to life. We perceive no breach of the plea agreement in the manner in which the prosecutor recommended a six-years-to-life prison sentence.

  1. Implication of Regret

¶23 Heward next argues that in informing the court that the two victims apparently no longer supported the sentence of six years to life, the State breached the plea agreement by implying that it regretted entering it.

¶24 A prosecutor who “promises to recommend a certain sentence and does so” does not breach the bargain “by also bringing all relevant facts to the attention of the court, so long as the statements are neutral and do not imply that the information makes the State regret entering into the plea agreement.” Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26 (cleaned up). The feelings of victims do not inherently reflect the position of the State, and victims are not authorized to communicate the State’s recommendations. Therefore, by sharing the victims’ feelings, the prosecutor was making a neutral statement, one that did not reflect the State’s position or recommendation. See id. ¶ 32 (“By repeating the victim’s statement, the prosecutor did not undermine the State’s recommendation or imply that the State regretted that recommendation.”). Thus, bringing to the court’s attention that the support of Heward’s victims for the plea agreement had perhaps waned does not imply that the State regretted entering the plea.

¶25        It is also important to note that the prosecutor made these comments immediately after Heward’s victims made statements that could admittedly cut against the sentence of six years to life. The older daughter seemed to explicitly oppose the plea agreement, saying that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” And the younger daughter, while not overtly criticizing the plea agreement, described in detail how Heward’s abuse caused her to feel “numb,” depressed, anxious, “suicidal,” “unclean and dirty,” and untrusting. She further stated that she continued to have “very vivid nightmares and flashbacks” in which she could “physically feel his hands” on her. She also said, “I will never be able to forget how it felt when . . . Heward did the things he did to me. I’m afraid that wherever I go I will see him and he will hurt me in some type of way.” And she concluded by saying, “I want . . . Heward to learn from his actions, and I want him to know how badly he affected me . . . .” Given the graphic descriptions both victims provided of the ongoing harm they suffered, it certainly would not be a stretch to conclude that the victims thought Heward was being treated too leniently by the terms of the plea agreement.[2]

¶26 It was against this backdrop that the prosecutor spoke. As the State points out, the victims’ apparent “about-face on the plea agreement demanded an explanation” because the “court may have been confused by the disparity between the victims’ statements at sentencing and the plea agreement.” After all, the plea agreement stated that the “State and victims will affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life. But after the victims spoke, the court could have easily concluded that the victims were no longer on board. It is in this milieu that the prosecutor assured the court that in “speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender registry” and that was the offer the State gave Heward. Then the prosecutor explained that the victims had “wanted 6 to life” because “they felt manipulated” by Heward. We have made clear that a prosecutor conveying the views of the victim does not “undermine” or breach a plea agreement. Here, if anything, the prosecutor’s statements about how the victims felt represented an attempt to salvage the plea agreement after the victims’ statements could be taken as militating against it. And it was well within the prosecutor’s duty to assist the victims in making their views known. See State v. Casey, 2002 UT 29, ¶ 29, 44 P.3d 756 (“Prosecutors must assist victims in exercising their right to be heard at plea hearings and provide them with clear explanations regarding such proceedings.” (cleaned up)). The prosecutor appeared to be making the best of a delicate situation by juggling the interests of the various parties involved while trying to also honor the promises made in the plea agreement.

¶27        In sum, Heward’s complaint of plain error fails because the prosecutor did not breach the plea agreement at all, let alone commit a breach so obvious as to require the district court to intervene without an objection.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶28 Heward argues that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor’s alleged breach of the plea agreement.

¶29 To show ineffective assistance of counsel, Heward must prove that Counsel performed deficiently and that he suffered prejudice as a result. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Heward’s claim] under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182. Since we conclude, for two reasons, that Counsel did not perform deficiently, we limit our analysis to the deficiency prong. We give “trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Heyen, 2020 UT App 147, ¶ 18, 477 P.3d 23 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 485 P.3d 943 (Utah 2021). So, to prevail on Strickland’s first prong, Heward “must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel rendered adequate assistance and exercised reasonable professional judgment by persuading the court that there was no conceivable tactical basis for counsel’s actions.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 15, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018).

¶30 First, any objection would have been unlikely to succeed because, as we have explained above, it was far from clear that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement. See State v. Burdick, 2014 UT App 34, ¶ 34, 320 P.3d 55 (“It is well settled that counsel’s performance at trial is not deficient if counsel refrains from making futile objections, motions, or requests.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). Under these circumstances, a reasonable attorney could have concluded that the prosecutor had made the required “affirmative recommendation” and had therefore not breached the plea agreement at all. See Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 16 (“Here, we can easily conceive of a reasoned basis for counsel’s decision not to object to the State’s remarks at sentencing: counsel may have believed that the State was accurately describing the terms of the plea agreement.”).

¶31        Second, even if we assume, for purposes of the discussion, that Counsel actually believed, in the moment, that the prosecutor’s sentencing remarks constituted a breach of the plea agreement, Counsel nevertheless had a solid strategic reason not to object to the prosecutor’s statements, namely, an objection could jeopardize the plea agreement and he very much wanted it to remain on the table owing to the favorable terms it offered Heward. Through the plea agreement, Heward would serve time for only two of his eleven charges—ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child. If Counsel had been successful in objecting that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement, one of two results would have likely happened. At its discretion, the district court could have ordered “either specific performance of the plea agreement or withdrawal of the guilty plea.” State v. Smit, 2004 UT App 222, ¶ 17, 95 P.3d 1203. If the court had ordered specific performance, the State would then have to reiterate that it was honoring the promises made in the plea agreement. But it would have been more likely (had a breach occurred) that the court would have allowed Heward to withdraw his plea—something he would be reluctant to do since the probability of getting an equally favorable offer later would be slim in light of the victims’ apparent reservations about the existing plea agreement. Competent counsel could easily conclude that the risk of objecting was simply too great considering the minimal benefit and likely downside. At the very least, competent counsel could have reasoned that there was no benefit in objecting because the existing agreement was the best Heward was going to receive. So, Counsel’s best course of action was to express Heward’s concurrence with the six-years-to-life sentence and hope that the court would agree.

¶32        Accordingly, Heward’s ineffective assistance claim fails because Counsel had sound strategic reasons for not lodging an objection to the prosecutor’s statements at sentencing.

CONCLUSION

¶33        Heward fails to establish that the district court plainly erred where he has not shown that the plea agreement was breached, much less obviously so. He has also failed to show that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in not objecting to the prosecutor’s statements.

¶34 Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] For context, a court imposing a sentence for aggravated sexual abuse of a child may deviate downward from the presumptive upper range of fifteen years to life if the “court finds that a lesser term . . . is in the interests of justice.” See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4). The available lesser terms are ten years to life and six years to life. See id.

[2] In his reply brief, Heward explicitly states that he “does not object to the prosecutor facilitating the victims’ statements to the trial court.” Moreover, Heward does not claim in any way that the victims speaking up against the low-range sentence was a breach of the plea agreement, even where the plea agreement stated the victims would “affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life along with the State.

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In re H.H. – 2024 UT App 25 – termination of parental rights

In re H.H. – 2024 UT App 25

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.H. AND N.H.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

T.H. AND D.H., Appellants, v.  STATE OF UTAH,  Appellee.

Opinion

Nos. 20220803-CA and

20220820-CA

Filed February 29, 2024

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Jeffrey J. Noland

Nos. 1163279 and 1163280

Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant T.H.

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer,

Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Marjorie Christensen, and

Melissa Jo Townsend, Attorneys for Appellant D.H.

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JOHN D. LUTHY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After a lengthy bench trial, the juvenile court found grounds to terminate the parental rights of D.H. (Father) and T.H. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) regarding their two youngest children, H.H. (Hannah) and N.H. (Noah).[1] The court found that Father was an unfit parent because he had subjected four of his children, including Hannah and Noah, to “serious emotional abuse,” inflicted through a strict and intimidating parenting style, that “resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment.” As to Mother, the court found that her continued support of Father rendered her incapable of “exercising proper parental care.”

¶2        In its initial post-trial ruling, the court determined that it was in Hannah’s and Noah’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated, but that it was not in their best interest for Mother’s rights to be terminated. Instead, the court imposed a permanent guardianship arrangement in favor of an adult sibling (Oldest Sister). Later, however, after the guardian ad litem (the GAL) filed a motion for reconsideration, the court amended its initial ruling and ordered Mother’s rights terminated as well.

¶3        In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, Parents challenge the termination of their parental rights on several grounds, asserting chiefly that the “juvenile court process” that led to termination violated their constitutional rights and that the court erred in concluding that termination of their parental rights was strictly necessary. For the reasons that follow, we reject all of Parents’ arguments and affirm the court’s termination order.

BACKGROUND[2]

The Family Situation and the Initial Removal

¶4        Parents are the natural parents of six children: four daughters and two sons. By the time this case was initiated in 2018, the two oldest children (Oldest Sister and Older Brother) had reached adulthood and were living on their own. Some years earlier, when she turned eighteen but while she was still in high school, Oldest Sister moved out of Parents’ home because, in her view, Parents had created “a very horrible living situation” that left her “scared to go home.” In 2013, when Older Brother was seventeen and a junior in high school, he also elected, for apparently similar reasons, to move out of the family home; at that point, he moved in with Oldest Sister—who is some nine years older than Older Brother—and her husband (Brother-in-Law). The four younger children—Chloe, Felicity,[3] Hannah, and Noah—all still lived with Parents.

¶5        In May 2018, Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Chloe—who was fifteen at the time—had confided to a teacher that her home life was so unbearable that she was considering suicide, on a “constant basis,” as a means of escape. As Chloe described it, Parents were constantly screaming and fighting and taking their anger out on the children. Physical violence, both real and threatened, and verbal abuse were tools that Parents—especially Father— frequently used against the children. Father also forced the children to do seemingly endless chores, and he required them to pay him for basic amenities like fresh food (as opposed to “expired” food storage), computer usage, and rides to school. Chloe told a DCFS caseworker that she was suicidal because “she couldn’t handle being home alone with [Father] all summer.”

¶6        Spurred by the report it received about Chloe’s suicidal ideations, DCFS conducted an investigation during the summer of 2018. Among other things, it administered a “suicide severity” test to Chloe and concluded that Chloe scored “very high.” When DCFS reported this score to Parents, they “both scoffed” and responded that Chloe was a “drama queen” who was “just trying to get attention.” At the end of the investigation, DCFS made a supported finding of “emotional maltreatment” against Parents and offered them “voluntary services” to assist them in improving the situation. DCFS also spoke with Oldest Sister, who was familiar with the family dynamics and the living situation at Parents’ home. Oldest Sister committed to keeping an eye on her siblings and promised to notify DCFS “if the situation escalated.”

¶7        DCFS then notified Parents, by letter, of its “emotional maltreatment” finding. When Parents received this letter, they became “enraged” and responded by “blam[ing] the children” and acting “very vindictive” toward them. In particular, Parents warned the children that, “if they were to speak with authority figures,” including “church leaders” or anyone at DCFS, about events occurring in the home, they would be “severely punished.”

¶8        Notwithstanding this warning, in August 2018 the three younger daughters—Chloe, Felicity (then fourteen), and Hannah (then twelve)—sought guidance from one of their church “young women” leaders (YW Leader). The family—including Parents as well as all six of their children—are practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church that has relatively structured youth programs with local lay leaders

assigned to provide supervision and guidance. Both YW Leader and the president of the family’s local church unit (Branch President) had counseled the girls—without Parents’ knowledge—to “contact one of [them] if things got too bad at home and they needed an escape or someone to talk to.” When the girls sought YW Leader’s advice, she brought them in to meet with Branch President in his office at the local church.

¶9        As the meeting between the girls and Branch President was nearing its end, Father—having gotten wind of the meeting— appeared at the church; Branch President observed that Father was very upset and “quite agitated,” and Father demanded “to know what [the girls] were doing at the church.” Father “backed [the] girls into a corner” of Branch President’s office and “started angrily interrogating them” and “berating them in a loud, almost yelling tone” before then “turn[ing] on” YW Leader when she tried to intervene. The girls began “sobbing and begging him to stop.” Branch President, perceiving that the girls “were terrified,” also asked Father to stop, telling him that his behavior was “inappropriate.” Father then “angrily” “turned on” Branch President, put a “finger in [his] face,” and accused Branch President of “trying to divide his family.” He also “unloaded on” Chloe, “telling her that she was nothing but a drama queen and that if she hadn’t been threatening suicide just to get attention” the family “wouldn’t be in this mess.” His verbal assault was so fierce that Chloe “threw up her arms in front of her face” in an effort to protect herself. YW Leader was “shocked and quite upset” and “couldn’t believe what she was seeing.” Eventually, Father left the building, and after the incident, Branch President decided to take a step he’d never before taken in his years as a religious leader: he wrote a four-page single-spaced letter to DCFS describing the situation generally, and the incident at the church specifically, offering his view that the “terror and anguish the girls are experiencing” are “real” and that the situation requires attention. He requested that DCFS reopen the family’s case and that, “at a minimum,” the girls “be given a chance to be evaluated by professional counselors.”

¶10      Over the next few days, the situation in the family home continued to deteriorate. During this time, Chloe continued to talk about suicide, and she did so even more seriously; Brother-in-Law reported that Chloe was now saying that she had “a plan” for committing suicide. And Brother-in-Law reported that Felicity, for the first time, was also talking about suicide, even going so far as saying “it was the only way to escape this life as she could no longer deal with it.” On at least one occasion during this time frame, Felicity contacted DCFS to provide additional information.

¶11      Also during this time period, Parents often “cornered” the girls at home, separated them into “different rooms,” and “interrogat[ed]” them for “several hours” about whether they were “sharing information with” DCFS and, if so, what they had shared. During these interrogations, Parents would scream and yell, would threaten to send the children “to juvey,” and would tell them that they would be responsible if the “family was destroyed” and that, in that event, the children would end up in “foster care” where they would likely “be beat[en] and raped.”

¶12 On August 29, 2018, the day after an especially long evening interrogation, Felicity and Hannah went to school— which had just begun for the year—but were so distraught when classes ended that they were afraid to return home, so they contacted Brother-in-Law and asked him to pick them up. When Brother-in-Law arrived at the school, he found the girls “cowering” in the front office and “shaking uncontrollably,” behavior Brother-in-Law considered uncharacteristic; they also would not “let go of each other’s hands.” Brother-in-Law later reported that Felicity was “panicked out of her mind to have to return home to the situation” there. Brother-in-Law took the girls to his house, and he contacted DCFS; he told the caseworker that he “didn’t feel comfortable letting them go home because” he was concerned they might “hurt themselves.”

¶13 The DCFS caseworker assigned to the case traveled to Oldest Sister’s house and spoke with the girls, and she determined that “the family situation had risen to a dangerous level.” At that point, DCFS “sought and received a warrant for the removal” of all four minor children “from the custody and guardianship” of Parents. Later that evening, Parents arrived at Oldest Sister’s house and were served with the removal warrant. DCFS officials, accompanied by law enforcement, informed Parents that the children had been removed from their home. The children were eventually officially placed with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law; Hannah and Noah have remained in that placement ever since, and Chloe and Felicity remained in that placement until they reached adulthood.

The State’s Petition and the Shelter Hearing

¶14      The next day, the State filed a petition asking the court to award custody and guardianship of the children to DCFS. In its petition, the State discussed the situation in the home and asserted that both Chloe and Felicity had been having “suicidal thoughts and ideations” as a result. The petition included allegations of the constant chores Father required the children to perform, as well as Father’s requirement that the children pay him for basic necessities. It also included detailed allegations of verbal abuse by Parents, asserting that they were “swearing and spitting” in the children’s faces, calling them “little shits” and “worthless,” and telling the girls in particular that they were “ugly” and that Parents “wishe[d]” they hadn’t been born. The State alleged that Father used physical force as part of his dominion over the children, often “push[ing]” them and “pull[ing] the back of their hair.” Mother would sometimes “threaten[] to kill herself” and then disappear, causing the children distress and creating “panic”as they wondered whether Mother might have followed through with her threats. The State requested that the children be placed “in the custody and guardianship” of DCFS and that any visitation between Parents and the children be at the direction of DCFS and in consultation with a guardian ad litem.

¶15 At a shelter hearing held a few days later, the court considered evidence by proffer from several witnesses, including Parents, the four minor children, Oldest Sister, Brother-in-Law, the DCFS caseworkers, and Branch President.[4] At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found that the children were “suffering emotional harm” and there was “nothing and no services” that could be “placed into the home to ameliorate the harm.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the children could “not be safely returned” to Parents and awarded temporary custody of the children to DCFS, with Parents to have supervised visitation. The court also appointed the GAL to represent the interests of the children, and it later appointed attorneys to represent Mother and Father, separately.

The Failure of Group Therapy

¶16 During the fall of 2018, the court held hearings in the case on nearly a weekly basis, as disputes arose over even rather basic things. For instance, the State wanted all four children to have a mental health assessment, but Parents objected; the court held a hearing and ordered that the evaluations take place and that Parents were not allowed to attend them. The evaluations eventually occurred, and the children began therapy—both individual and group therapy—with a counselor in October 2018. Some of the group therapy was designed to include Parents; indeed, the court ordered that, for Chloe and Felicity, all visitation “shall be therapeutic until further order of the court.”

¶17 At first, the children were reticent to even see Parents, much less participate in group therapy with them. The therapist facilitating the group therapy (Therapist) asked the children— prior to the appointments with Parents—if there were “things that [Therapist] could put into place” that would help them “feel comfortable” with the arrangement, and the children—“together as a collaborative process”—came up with a set of guidelines they thought would help. Among other things, the children asked that there be “no hugs” between them and Parents, “no talking about money,” and “no talking about religion” or “church stuff.” Therapist communicated these child-created guidelines to Parents on October 24, 2018, just prior to the first group therapy session.

¶18      Parents objected to these guidelines, especially the “no talking about religion” rule, and at a hearing held just over a month later, the court removed the “no talking about religion” rule but overruled Parents’ objections to the other rules. During the short time the “no talking about religion” rule was in place, however, Parents—and Father in particular—pointedly refused to abide by it; indeed, Therapist later testified that Father brought up religion in “nearly every visit.”

¶19 For instance, during one session between Father, Felicity, and Chloe, Therapist had to ask Father “seven times” to stop talking about religion. In previous sessions, Therapist had asked Father to focus on “listening” to the girls, because he “spoke so much” during the sessions that the girls typically did not “have the opportunity to share” their feelings. But in this session, and despite Therapist’s attempts to intervene, Father continued his behavior of dominating the discussion and refusing to listen to the girls’ concerns, explaining that “he had the power from God, that he had the power of the priesthood” and they did not, which gave him the right to direct all decisions for the family generally and for the girls specifically. At times physically standing up and towering over the girls, he told them that Brother-in-Law had no right to take decision-making power away from Father and that “God gave [Father] the right” to make decisions for the children as he saw fit. The girls reacted by “hiding” and “cover[ing]” themselves with pillows, and “scoot[ing] closer together” in solidarity. They appeared “very defeated” and “stopped talking”; Therapist observed that they “completely withdrew and shut down and were done having any interaction at that point.”

¶20      As time went on, and recognizing that no progress could be made as long as Father dominated the discussion during therapy, Therapist attempted to make future sessions more “child-focused.” During one session, Chloe and Felicity “started to express” how they often felt bullied by Father, and he responded by stating “that people who get bullied . . . are victims because they allow themselves to be.” He told the girls that it was “their fault” that they were being bullied and that he had done “nothing” wrong. In an effort to get through to Father, Therapist then attempted a “role reversal” technique whereby Felicity would portray Father and Father would portray Felicity; the purpose of this exercise was to give Father an “understanding of how his children felt when he lectured them.” Once Felicity (pretending to be Father) began her lecture, Father “started fighting back instantly.” Therapist informed Father that he was not “doing the role reversal the right way” because, as Father had already explained, “he expects complete compliance” from the children when he lectures. To fully engage with the role-reversal exercise, Therapist instructed Father “to sit there” and “listen” just as he expected his children to do for him. This instruction angered Father, who turned on Therapist, declaring that she should not be “allowing his children to bully him” and that she was “undermin[ing] his parenting skills.” He also accused Therapist of “taking away his religious rights” by engaging in this role reversal, offering his view that Therapist was attempting to indoctrinate the children with her “secular views.”

¶21      In another session, Therapist instructed the children to write down the details of some of the different traumas they had experienced. The plan was to then have each child share their thoughts and have Father “meet the child[ren] emotionally” and “validate” their feelings, and then have an opportunity to explain the intention behind his actions. As the children began to explain what they had written, Father interrupted and began to argue and “discredit” what the children were saying. Father, who was now on his feet, tried to take control of the session, reaching out to grab the papers from the children so he could read them and address them in the manner he saw fit. At this point, Felicity asked “for a two-minute break,” which Therapist agreed would be a good idea. Watching the children defer to Therapist for permission to leave the room further agitated Father. He began telling Therapist that he was the one “who gets to decide what his children do” and that Therapist does not “get to undermine him and his parental authority.” Therapist tried to explain that it was okay to take a brief break, given that things were “getting rough,” and she stated that if Felicity needed a break, she should be allowed to have one. Father disagreed, situating himself in the doorway and blocking the exit. Therapist tried to maneuver Felicity around Father while gathering the children’s papers, at which point Father began “lunging” at Therapist and trying to snatch the papers out of her hands. Therapist was forced to hold the papers behind her back, telling Father the documents belonged to the children and he was not permitted to take them. Father started yelling that these were “his kids” and he was therefore “entitled” to see whatever they wrote on the papers. He then turned his anger on the children, telling them “it was time for them to be punished and that they need[ed] to have their consequence.” At this point, Therapist determined that the session was over, and she began escorting the children to the reception area. Father was following close behind, continuing his tirade and informing Therapist “what [he was] going to do to [Therapist], what [he was] going to do to the caseworkers, [and] what he’s going to do to the kids.”[5]

¶22 After that point, the therapists who had been working with the family came to the collective conclusion that group therapy sessions were doing more harm than good. For one thing, the sessions were “unproductive”; Father had “made it very clear, from the beginning, that he didn’t think [therapy] was necessary” and that he did not need to be there because “nothing needed to change” and he “wasn’t going to make changes.” In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the therapists “no longer felt that it was safe to continue having family therapy sessions that included [Father].” In particular, Therapist wrote in a report that, “[t]herapeutically speaking,” it would “be detrimental to the children to continue family therapy” because it would only further “damag[e] their relationship[s].” She believed, however, that it was critical that individual therapy still continue.

¶23 Given the tenor of the group therapy sessions, the GAL filed a motion to suspend all visitation—even in a therapeutic setting—between Father and the children. Father objected to this request, and he took the opportunity to advance his own view of the group therapy sessions. In a filing he made with the court, Father opined that the children were “being coached and groomed in an attempt to avoid reunification with” Parents. Father believed he—as religious leader of the family—had a right to review all recordings of the children’s individual therapy sessions, and he took issue with Therapist’s refusal to provide him any such recordings. Father concluded his filing with a request that a new therapist be appointed, one that would not engage in the “foisting of secular values” upon his family.[6] At a hearing in January 2019, the court ordered that therapeutic visitation with Chloe and Felicity be “discontinued until the issues are adjudicated.” But the court also indicated that the children “may visit” with Parents “if approved” by the DCFS caseworker and the GAL and “with input from the children’s therapists.” The court did not order that any change of therapists take place.

Mother’s Adjudication

¶24 Mother did not contest the allegations in the State’s petition, admitting to some of them and, with regard to the rest, electing to proceed pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure.[7] Based on the uncontested allegations in the petition, the juvenile court found that all four children were neglected as to Mother. The court determined that Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah were neglected because Mother subjected them “to mistreatment or abuse and/or” because they “lack[ed] proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother], and/or” because Mother had “failed to provide proper and necessary subsistence, education or medical care when required or any other care necessary for [the] health, safety, morals or well being of the children.” The court determined that Noah was neglected because he was “at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home [was] neglected or abused.”

¶25      At a dispositional hearing that took place a few weeks later, the juvenile court set reunification as the primary permanency goal, and it ordered that Mother receive reunification services and comply with a child and family plan (Mother’s Plan). In particular, the court ordered Mother to “complete a domestic violence assessment,” complete an “in home peer parenting” program, undergo a “neuro-psychological evaluation,” and “complete individual therapy.”

Father’s Adjudication

¶26      Father, on the other hand, elected to contest the allegations in the State’s petition, and the matter proceeded toward an adjudication trial, which was held over five trial days in March and April 2019. During the first day of trial, Father was represented by counsel, but he then requested that the court “replace his second appointed attorney”—Father had already switched appointed counsel once—which request the court denied. Father then elected to represent himself for the remainder of the trial, although the court determined that Father’s second appointed attorney should “continue as standby counsel.” During the trial, the court heard testimony from the four minor children, Branch President, several DCFS caseworkers, Oldest Sister, Brother-in-Law, and Father.

¶27 Following the trial, the court took the matter under advisement, and it issued a written decision in June 2019. In its conclusion, the court determined that all four minor children had “been emotionally abused” in a “continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment” by Father and that this “ongoing abusive environment has emotionally damaged the children.” The court’s findings, made in support of this determination, are remarkable and are worth describing in some detail.

¶28      The court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the State’s petition were generally correct. It found that, in May 2018, Chloe wrote an “alarming letter” to her teacher describing “her home environment” and expressing “her desire to kill herself on a constant basis.” The home environment in question was one dominated and directed by Father, who—in an ostensible attempt to “promot[e] the necessity and value of work and chores”—was “unhealthily” using these principles “to control and subjugate the children.” He assigned “continuous chores” to the children and demanded that each task be performed timely—often using the mantra “housework before homework”—and perfectly, assigning additional chores and requiring the children to stay home from school if chores were not performed to his satisfaction. And he required the children to pay him for even basic household privileges, like eating “fresh food” (as opposed to “expired food stores”), using the computer, and getting rides to school.

¶29      The court found that Father often used physical force—or the threat of it—to control Mother and the children. On one occasion, Father roughly “grabbed the car keys” from Mother’s hand, “which resulted in a cut on [Mother’s] hand.” On another occasion, Father “threw the family dog out the back door because the children would not kneel down for family prayer.” Once when Noah apparently did not kneel down fast enough for family prayer, Father threw “a headlamp” at him. Other times, Father “grabbed” the children “by the wrists to make them do something.” Father once “brought [Noah] to his feet by . . . grabbing the back of his hair,” and another time he “slapped [Hannah] on the mouth.”

¶30 The court found that Chloe was not the only one of the children experiencing suicidal ideations: it found that, “as a result of the continuing emotional trauma, [Felicity] felt trapped and became suicidal; she thought about dying as a way to escape the home.” Parents were not receptive or attentive to Chloe and Felicity in this regard; although Mother did take Chloe to one appointment for a mental health assessment, there was no follow-up or any actual treatment rendered and her “suicidal thoughts were not properly addressed.” Indeed, the children were told not to speak to anyone—including church leaders and DCFS officials—about the conditions in the home, and they were threatened with punishment if they did. Felicity was even told, by one of the Parents, that “if [Chloe] were to commit suicide, it would be her fault.”

¶31 The court also found credible Branch President’s account of his meeting with the girls in August 2018, and found that the meeting occurred as set forth in Branch President’s letter to DCFS (as described above). And it found that DCFS had acted appropriately by seeking a warrant for removal in August 2018.

¶32 The court then examined the statutory definition of “emotional abuse,” as well as Utah case law interpreting that definition. The court specifically noted that a finding of “abuse” requires a finding of “harm,” which—as applied to emotional abuse—requires a finding that a child has suffered “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” With this standard in mind, the court concluded that all four children had been “emotionally abused by” Father and that, in addition, Chloe was also “a neglected child due to the lack of proper parental care” from Father. The court found that the threats Father constantly made to the children had “caused emotional upheaval” in their lives “and negatively impacted [their] development.” And the court found “a continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment of the children which [had] resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment,” and it found that “these suicidal ideations and thoughts demonstrate a serious impairment to” the affected children’s “psychological functioning.” In particular, the court found that Father,

[t]hrough the use of chores, yelling, physical control, the use of access to food, the harm to a family pet, insulting comments, blaming and payment for basic things, and the daily arguing and sometime[s] physically aggressive behavior between . . . [P]arents that the children witness, . . . has created a hostile environment, which is manifested in the children feeling unsafe and being terrified of being at home with [P]arents.

The court concluded by noting that “this ongoing abusive environment has emotionally damaged the children.” While the court did not find “physical abuse as defined” by Utah law, it did conclude that “the children’s testimony was credible about the use of physical force to submit to the requests of [Father].” The court concluded that these “physical actions” on Father’s part “were part of” the “emotionally abusive parenting style” that he “used to intimidate and control the children.”

¶33 Father appealed the court’s adjudication order, but he raised only one argument—a procedural one—in his appellate petition. Specifically, he asserted that “the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to enter the [adjudication] order because the adjudication trial was not held within sixty days after the shelter hearing,” which Father asserted was required by Utah law. Father mounted no appellate challenge to the substance of the court’s adjudication order. In an unpublished order, we rejected Father’s procedural argument and affirmed the adjudication order, concluding that Father had not preserved his procedural argument in the juvenile court and that Father could not demonstrate plain error.

¶34      Soon after the juvenile court issued its adjudication ruling, it held a dispositional hearing regarding Father. At the conclusion of that hearing, the court set a primary permanency goal of reunification and ordered that Father receive reunification services. The court also ordered that Father “comply with all of the provisions of” a child and family plan (Father’s Plan). Among other things, Father’s Plan required Father to obtain a mental health evaluation, follow any and all recommendations made by the evaluator, and participate in therapy.

The Permanency Hearing

¶35 A few months after entering its adjudication order regarding Father, the court held a permanency hearing, which took place over three trial days in September and October 2019. Again, the court heard testimony from members of the family as well as from therapists, DCFS caseworkers, and others. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found, as to both Parents, that DCFS had made “reasonable efforts” to facilitate Parents’ compliance with their plans and to facilitate reunification.

¶36      With regard to Mother, the court found that she had made some positive efforts to comply with Mother’s Plan. In particular, Mother had “participated in visits with the children,” “obtained a psychological evaluation and engaged in therapy,” and completed an “assessment for domestic violence.” But the court also noted that Mother “continues to not give any credence to the children’s testimony about the conditions and treatment within the home” and, because of this belief, “no progress has been accomplished in family therapy.” As part of Mother’s Plan, Mother had also been instructed “to provide a safe and stable home.” The court found that Mother was not “capable or willing to do this given the continued denial of any concerns of emotional abuse of the children with her or [Father].” Thus, even though Mother had made some progress “on a number of the services ordered,” the court concluded that she had made insufficient progress “in the most essential areas of family therapy and personal insight to have the children safely returned home at this time or in the next 90 days.” For those reasons, the court terminated reunification services for Mother.

¶37      With regard to Father, the juvenile court found that he had “not substantially complied with” Father’s Plan. First of all, Father had refused “to obtain a mental health evaluation,” despite the fact that DCFS caseworkers had set up appointments for Father to receive the evaluation and had “encourage[d] him to complete” it “prior to the permanency hearing as it would show his efforts in the reunification process.” In addition, the court found that Father had failed to “participate in meaningful family therapy.” And most significantly, it found that Father had failed in his overarching task of providing “an emotionally safe or stable home to which the children may be returned.” The court specifically noted that Father, through his testimony at the hearing, had shown that there had “been no change in his perception of the facts which facilitated the [S]tate’s involvement.” Accordingly, the court terminated reunification services for Father and set adoption as the new “primary permanency goal” for the children, with a secondary goal of permanent custody and guardianship with Oldest Sister.

The Termination Trial

¶38 In October 2019, soon after the permanency hearing, the State filed a petition to terminate Parents’ parental rights regarding all four minor children. But due to a series of delays— caused by numerous factors, including motions to disqualify the judge, attempts to appeal certain orders, requests by both Parents for new counsel, disputes over discovery and subpoenas, and (most significantly) the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic— the termination trial did not begin until July 2021. And the trial, once it began, was quite lengthy, spanning parts of nineteen trial days and involving the testimony of more than twenty different witnesses. Due to scheduling and pandemic-related concerns, the juvenile court was unable to hold the trial in one large block of time; instead, the trial occurred on scattered dates over the course of eleven months. In the meantime, both Chloe and Felicity turned eighteen and became adults, and they each chose to be adopted— as adults and in separate district court proceedings—by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. By the time the termination trial ended, only Hannah and Noah were still minors and still within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

¶39      First to testify at trial were three DCFS caseworkers, who told the court that it had been difficult working with Parents, especially Father. One testified that whenever difficult subjects arose, Father would become “visibly upset,” raise his voice, and stand very close to her and wave his finger. Mother was less confrontational, but the caseworkers reported that the children felt that they could not be entirely honest with Mother “because they felt that she was just collecting information to use against them” and “that she was taking notes to provide to [Father].” At one point, one of the caseworkers had advised Mother that it would be “unlikely” that her reunification with the children would be successful “if [Mother] and [Father] were still together” and if Father continued to refuse to engage in services.

¶40 The court also heard about an incident in October 2019 when Father and a caseworker had gone with Chloe to visit a child psychiatrist (Psychiatrist) to discuss Chloe’s suicidal ideations. Psychiatrist testified that Father made it clear from the beginning that he was against the appointment because he believed there was “nothing wrong” with Chloe and that she “did not need medication.” Father became “confrontational” with Psychiatrist, in terms of both his “voice tone” and his “physical posturing,” and demanded to see a copy of Psychiatrist’s credentials. Father acted similarly toward Psychiatrist’s office staff. Psychiatrist found Father’s behavior so remarkably inappropriate that he wrote a letter to the court—the first time Psychiatrist had done so in decades of practice—asking that Father be kept away from his office and prohibited from contacting his employees regarding Chloe’s medical care.

¶41      Mother’s therapist testified that Mother felt that DCFS became involved only because the children had made up “a bunch of lies” just so they could have “an easier life.” Mother also had a habit, similar to Father’s, of raising her voice and shaking her finger at the therapist and would accuse her “of being involved” in “the efforts” to keep the children “away from [Mother].” The therapist met with Mother seventeen times, but she indicated that, “at the point of discharge,” Mother had made “little progress.”

¶42      The court also heard testimony—from DCFS caseworkers as well as from the psychologist tasked to perform the assessment—that Father refused to undergo a mental health evaluation, as ordered by the court pursuant to Father’s Plan. Father’s stated concern was that he did not want DCFS to have a copy of the psychologist’s eventual report, apparently because he believed that DCFS was “kind of out to get him”; the psychologist explained to Father that he had been retained by DCFS and therefore DCFS was going to get a copy of the report. The psychologist testified that he had completed more than 4,000 assessments for DCFS over several decades and that this was the first time anyone had refused to participate on the ground that they did not want DCFS to receive a copy of the report.

¶43 Mother, on the other hand, did participate in a mental health evaluation; the psychologist who performed her evaluation testified that Mother had dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and dementia. The psychologist went on to note that she could not rule out aphasia as another possible diagnosis but, to be certain, Mother would need to undergo an evaluation with someone more qualified in speech and language. According to this psychologist, someone in Mother’s position would likely struggle with daily life and would need “a lot of assistance and accommodations.”

¶44      Oldest Sister testified, and she offered her perspective on what it had been like to live with Parents; in addition, she told the court about one incident that took place after she had moved out. She recounted how she would sometimes return to Parents’ house to visit her siblings, and on one such occasion, Father struck Oldest Sister. The incident began with Father demanding that, while Oldest Sister was visiting, she “clean the house” for Parents. Oldest Sister decided to stand up to Father and tell him that she was happy to help around the house while she was visiting but that she was not there to be Father’s “maid.” At this, Father “backhanded” Oldest Sister, knocking her to the floor. While on the floor, Oldest Sister threatened to call the police, at which point Mother “jumped on top” of her, warning her not to call law enforcement and that if she did, it would “ruin” the family.

¶45      Oldest Sister also offered her account of the circumstances that caused DCFS to become involved in this case, and she described that she has a strong bond of love and affection for her siblings and that they are thriving in her care. She noted that she and Brother-in-Law have three children of their own, and she stated that her four siblings have integrated well with her three children. She also testified that her siblings “know that we love them no matter what” and that they are no longer “afraid.” She told the court that she was ready and willing to adopt all four of her siblings—she had not yet adopted Chloe and Felicity—even if it meant that her own relationship with Parents would suffer.

¶46 The court also heard testimony from all four minor children, which testimony we describe here in some detail.

¶47 Chloe’s Testimony: Chloe testified over two trial days in July and August 2021, just before she turned nineteen and was about to leave on a religious mission. Chloe described herself as a religious person, and she noted her appreciation to Parents for teaching her religious principles. But she expressed disagreement with the manner in which Father often exercised his authority within the family, offering her view that Father would “force” religion “down [the children’s] throats” and “use it against” them, which Chloe believed “was tearing [the family] apart.” She stated that it had been the children’s idea to prohibit Father from talking about religion during group therapy sessions. At home, Chloe had never felt like she could express herself or “say anything,” because Father always had to be “in control” and it was always “his way or the highway.” She described how the children were “scared” of Father and would sometimes hide in a closet, “all huddled up together,” because they were “terrified.” Chloe described instances where she had witnessed Father physically hurting members of the family. On one occasion, shortly before Older Brother had moved out, she saw Older Brother arguing with Father when Father “grabbed” Older Brother and “put him in a choke hold.” When Older Brother broke free of Father’s grasp, Chloe witnessed Father “push[ing] him down the stairs.” She confirmed that she had been “suicidal when [she] was in [Parents’] house.” When she told Father about it, his response was, “If you commit suicide, you’re going to go to hell.” She also confirmed that Father had interfered with a medical appointment in which she was attempting to see Psychiatrist to discuss medication and treatment. And she described how Father would make the children eat expired food, even sometimes when it had “mold on it” or when “the expiration date [was] . . . more than two or three or sometimes even five years past.”

¶48 In addition, Chloe offered her view that Father had not “done the things the [c]ourt asked him to do” in order to reunify with his children, and she stated that she did not think she could have meaningful contact with Father going forward. She viewed Father’s unwillingness to engage with reunification services as a sign that he “didn’t want us,” because if Father had wanted them, he “would have gone through the process” that the court set out instead of “fighting so hard to be like ‘I’m right and you’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot do’” regarding the children.

¶49      Chloe was more equivocal about Mother, stating that she believed she could potentially have a good relationship with Mother if Mother were no longer with Father, and that she and Felicity had expressed that sentiment to Mother at one point. In Chloe’s view, Mother acted merely as Father’s “puppet” and did not feel free to offer “her true feelings.” Mother reacted negatively to the girls’ suggestion that she should leave Father, telling Chloe, “[D]on’t you dare ever make me choose.”

¶50      Chloe acknowledged that, as an adult, she had chosen to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, and she stated that she had wanted that outcome all along, even when she had been a minor, and that she had chosen adoption because she wanted “a loving and supportive” place “to call home” and didn’t feel like she ever had that with Parents. She noted that there had been challenges, initially, transitioning from “sister to daughter overnight” in relation to Oldest Sister, but she described her life with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law as, on balance, “pretty freaking amazing.”

¶51      Felicity’s Testimony: Felicity testified in November 2021, about a month before she turned eighteen. She stated that her home with Parents was “really scary” and not “safe.” Parents “yelled all the time,” fed the children “expired” food unless they paid Father for fresh food, and made the children do endless chores that somehow could never be “done good enough.” She recalled one occasion in which Father kept her up until 2:00 a.m. on a school night because he thought she hadn’t cleaned the kitchen counters well enough; Felicity finally went to bed, but Father came into her room “and poured water over [her] head” to wake her up and made her “go finish” cleaning the counters. And she recalled another occasion in which Father threw her dog outside because she “didn’t kneel down for prayers fast enough.”

¶52 Felicity confirmed that, while she lived with Parents, she struggled with “anxiety and depression” and “thought about killing [her]self.” She perceived Parents as being unsupportive of her during this time; Mother in particular was resistant to helping Felicity obtain medication for her depression, telling her instead to just “read the scriptures.”

¶53      Since being placed with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, Felicity has had visits with Parents, but she testified that she doesn’t like the visits. During the visits, Parents would “act like . . . everything’s fine” and would refuse to engage with the problems in the home. She stated that the visits with Father, in particular, didn’t go well. On one occasion, she asked to take a break while Father was talking to her, and Father became angry, telling her she was not allowed to leave the room while he was addressing her. After that visit, she and the caseworkers came up with a kind of “safe word” for her to use if she needed a break during a visit: she was to say that she needed to use the restroom.

¶54 She confirmed that group therapy with Parents had not been productive because Parents “would just deny” everything and would “refuse to say that they did something wrong.” She offered her perception that Parents, during the reunification period, “haven’t done anything to change.”

¶55      Finally, Felicity testified that she liked living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law because “they’re kind and they care about” her and she feels like she is “actually loved.” She testified that she does not “want to have a relationship with” either one of her Parents and that she wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. Indeed, in March 2022—before the trial ended but after she testified and after she turned eighteen—she elected to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law.

¶56      Hannah’s Testimony: Hannah testified in September 2021, when she was fifteen. She confirmed that she and her siblings had been removed from Parents’ home because “it wasn’t really safe” there. She testified that there was “a lot of contention” in the home and that there was “so much screaming and yelling” that she and Noah would sometimes “go hide in a closet” because they were “really scared.” She discussed several incidents in which Father used physical force, once on Mother—when he forcibly “grabbed the keys” out of her hand—and sometimes on the children: she described Father throwing a “headlamp” at Noah and once “slapp[ing] her across the face.” Often, the yelling was about the children’s chores and involved Parents indicating that they were dissatisfied with the manner in which the children had performed their tasks. She said that “every time” Parents started yelling, she “was afraid they were going to hit” her, which caused her “anxiety” and was “really scary.” She testified that, in those situations, she “couldn’t talk back” because, if she did, she would “get in more trouble.”

¶57      She testified that the post-removal visits were “pretty scary at first” because she worried that Parents “were going to take all of their anger” about the removal “out on” the children. Hannah did not believe that the visits were productive, and she testified that she felt “released” and “happy” when visits with Father were “canceled.” She believed that the group therapy sessions, in particular, were unhelpful, largely because Parents refused to ever acknowledge that they might have done anything wrong.

¶58      And she testified that living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law was “pretty awesome” because she feels “loved there” and feels “like someone cares for” her and that she wasn’t “scared anymore.” She told the court that she wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, and that she would “run away” if she were forced to return to Parents’ home.

¶59 Noah’s Testimony: Noah testified in September 2021, a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday. He also testified that Parents’ home “wasn’t a safe environment” due to the constant “yelling and contention,” offering his view that “there was almost never . . . peace and happiness.” He recalled Parents waking him up by spraying him “with a water bottle,” and he recalled the headlamp incident.

¶60 His view of the post-removal visits was that he “didn’t really want to have them” because he didn’t “want to have a relationship with [Parents] anymore.” He found the visits “odd at first” but then, after a while, he just found them “boring” and “a waste of time” because Parents would just ask “the same questions.” He also believed that Parents “wouldn’t try and improve” themselves through the visits and group therapy.

¶61      And Noah testified that he “really like[s]” living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law and that he wants to “live permanently” with them. He testified that Oldest Sister’s home is “a loving environment” where they “help each other . . . try to get better and improve.” He stated that he doesn’t “want [Parents] to be [his] parents,” and that he would not “feel safe” if he was returned to Parents’ custody. He expressed a desire “to have [Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law] be [his] parents.”

¶62      Finally, the court heard extensive testimony from Parents. Father testified over three trial days and was the only witness to testify on two of those days. Mother also testified over three trial days. For the most part, in the interest of brevity, we present their testimony through our description of the juvenile court’s ruling, set forth immediately below. But in general, Parents refused to acknowledge that they had acted in any way inappropriately, and they defended their behavior as a means of instilling discipline and religious-based values in their children.

The Court’s Post-Trial Ruling

¶63 Following the presentation of evidence, the attorneys presented their closing arguments over parts of two days. After that, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement and, a few weeks later, issued a fifty-three-page written decision. In that decision, the court summarized the testimony that had been presented; in particular, the court spent some twelve pages summarizing Parents’ lengthy testimony.

¶64 The court noted that Father described Oldest Sister as “spoiled” and described Chloe’s expression of suicidal ideations as “play[ing] the suicide card.” Father acknowledged that he had awakened the children with water, thrown a headlamp at Noah, and “raised his voice” during the meeting with Branch President. But he justified these behaviors as merely strict religious-based parenting. The court noted Father’s stated belief that “the [State] had invaded his family” and was “taking over his stewardship,” as well as Father’s contention that the assigned therapists “had replaced his religious beliefs” by instituting rules for the therapy sessions with which he disagreed. And the court noted Father’s testimony that Branch President was “highly judgmental and lacking in integrity,” as well as Father’s stated belief that DCFS, Branch President, and Oldest Sister “got together with malice to engage in child kidnapping and child trafficking” so that Oldest Sister could “enslave[]” the children to “serve [her] family.”

¶65      With regard to Mother, the court noted that she had been married to Father for thirty-five years and “intends to stay married to him.” Mother testified that, at one point, the GAL and DCFS caseworkers told her that “she had to choose between [Father] and the children,” and that she “told them no, that they are not going to break up the family.” The court noted Mother’s belief that she had attempted to comply with Mother’s Plan, and that Mother “wants to have a special relationship with all of her children and would like the family to be together.”

¶66 After summarizing the voluminous testimony presented at trial, the court made certain findings and conclusions. It found that Father “uses religious, familial, and authoritative vocabulary to intimidate the children,” and that he “has used his physical presence” in that manner as well “by standing up, making his body larger, [and] power posing [to] the children.” The court found that Father “has not engaged in purposeful family therapy with the children to address the issues” in the case and that Father “has never acknowledged that he” might bear some responsibility for the situation. The court noted that the “family never moved from square one in talking about the real issues that led [Chloe] to be suicidal and had [Noah] and [Hannah] hiding in the closet.” The court declared that, “[w]ithout addressing and correcting the problems in the home as to parenting style and the environment, the children and [Father] will never have a healthy relationship.” The court found that “there does not exist a bond of love and affection between the children and [Father].” And it observed that Father certainly “has the constitutional right to parent his children” but that the “children also have the right to be free from emotional abuse.” In summary, the court found that Father “is an unfit parent” and that Hannah and Noah could not “safely be returned to [Parents’] home to reside with [Father] since he has made no efforts,” or “only token efforts,” to address and eliminate “the issues of emotional abuse which exist in the home.”

¶67    As to Mother, the court found that she “supported [Father] in his harmful treatment of the children as he tried to control their lives,” and that she “minimized the emotional maltreatment that was occurring in the home and the extent of the emotional trauma” the children experienced. It found that Mother “continues to deny . . . any emotional . . . maltreatment of the children,” that she “laughs when questioned about these things and continues to blame the children and [Oldest Sister] for [DCFS’s] intervention,” and that she “has never considered for a moment that she or [Father] have done anything untoward or harmful to the children.” The court found that Mother’s “continued association with [Father] puts the children at risk should they be returned to her custody and care.” The court found grounds sufficient to justify termination of her parental rights, concluding that Mother was “unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that caused the children to be in an out-of-home placement” and that she had made only “token efforts to eliminate the risk of serious harm to the children.”

¶68      Having found grounds sufficient to justify termination of Parents’ rights, the court then turned to the best-interest question. The court determined “that it is in the children’s best interest and strictly necessary to terminate” Father’s parental rights. The court considered whether to impose a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, but it did “not find this alternative to be in the children’s best interest.” The court noted that both Branch President and Psychiatrist had considered Father so aberrant that—in an effort to keep Father away from the children—they had each taken action they had never taken before. And the court noted that, “if permanent custody and guardianship were granted” to Oldest Sister, Father “would still be in the orbit of the two remaining [minor] children” and would be able to “assert[] his will as to basic medical and otherwise personal decisions in the care of the children.” For these reasons, the court concluded that the State had demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to advance the children’s best interest. The court therefore ordered that Father’s rights be terminated.

¶69 As to Mother, however, the court reached a different conclusion. The court first noted “the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible family life should be strengthened and preserved,” and it observed that the children were in the custody of a relative—Oldest Sister—and were not “in a home unrelated to” Parents. The court noted that the children’s visits with Mother had gone better than their visits with Father, and that their relationship with Mother—unlike their relationship with Father—does not cause “the children emotional or mental harm.” Accordingly, the court concluded that, with regard to Mother, “the children can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination.” The court therefore declined to terminate Mother’s rights, and it placed the children in a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law.

The GAL’s Rule 59 Motion

¶70      Shortly after the issuance of the court’s initial post-trial ruling, the GAL filed a motion—grounded in rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure—requesting that the court reconsider its decision not to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The GAL asserted that, in making its decision not to terminate Mother’s rights, the court had viewed matters too much from Mother’s point of view and not enough from the children’s point of view. Mother opposed the motion.

¶71      During a hearing on the motion, the GAL began to discuss events that had occurred since the conclusion of the termination trial, and Mother’s counsel objected. The court determined that it would permit counsel to “put in a memorandum or affidavit” the “additional information supporting” its argument, and it would then allow all other parties “to file an affidavit or other response.” Following the hearing, the GAL filed with the court an affidavit from Brother-in-Law in which he described, among other things, the effects that post-trial visits with Mother had been having on Hannah and Noah.

¶72 A few weeks later, the juvenile court issued a written ruling granting the GAL’s motion. In the introductory paragraph of that ruling, the court noted that, in preparing to make its decision, it had reviewed “the filings and arguments of the parties, the oral argument on the [m]otion and the prior testimony from the termination trial and the original findings and order.” But the court made no specific mention, anywhere in its ruling, of the post-trial events described in Brother-in-Law’s latest affidavit. Instead, the court stated that it was reconsidering its prior ruling and, this time, it was ordering termination of Mother’s parental rights; it explained that, in its initial ruling, it had “failed to give the proper weight to the children’s expressed wishes to be adopted” by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. The court noted that the “children have been direct in seeking to be adopted.” And it noted that it was statutorily commanded to “give the minor’s wishes added weight” if the minor in question was fourteen years old or older, a stipulation that, in the court’s view, applied to all of the children (Noah having recently turned fourteen). After reconsidering its prior decision in light of the added weight given to the children’s stated wishes, the court determined that termination of Mother’s rights was in the children’s best interest, and it therefore ordered that her rights be terminated.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶73      Parents now appeal, and they raise several issues for our review. First, they contend that the juvenile court violated their constitutional rights. “Constitutional issues, including questions regarding due process, are questions of law,” and the conclusions of the juvenile court on such issues are reviewed “for correctness.” In re adoption of K.T.B., 2020 UT 51, ¶ 15, 472 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified). Along with this argument, Parents also assert that the constitutional issues they raise indicate that the court erred in concluding that DCFS made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. To the extent that Parents’ constitutional arguments raise “reasonable efforts” questions, we review the court’s ruling more deferentially. See In re P.J.R., 2023 UT App 27, ¶ 24, 527 P.3d 1114 (“A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 534 P.3d 750 (Utah 2023).

¶74      Second, Parents assert that their respective attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel at various points throughout the litigation. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 6, 522 P.3d 39 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶75 Third, Father argues that some of the juvenile court’s factual findings were against the clear weight of the evidence. “In order to overturn the juvenile court’s decision the result must be against the clear weight of the evidence or leave [this] court with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 70, 491 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified).

¶76      Finally, while Parents do not take issue with the juvenile court’s ruling that statutory grounds for termination existed, Parents do challenge the court’s ruling that termination was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest. We review a trial court’s “best interest determination deferentially, and we will overturn it only if [the court] either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 15, 535 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). But “because the evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases is the clear and convincing evidence standard, we will assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶77 Along with her best-interest argument, Mother raises an additional issue: she asserts that the juvenile court erred by allowing the GAL to submit new evidence of post-trial matters in support of the rule 59 motion. “We generally disturb a trial court’s grant or denial of a rule 59 motion only if it constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Bergmann v. Bergmann, 2018 UT App 130, ¶ 12, 428 P.3d 89 (quotation simplified). And we will not reverse that decision if the only errors in it were harmless. See State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 10 n.1, 994 P.2d 1237 (“We do not reverse a trial court for committing harmless error.”); Proctor v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 2013 UT App 226, ¶ 9, 311 P.3d 564 (“[A] harmless error does not require reversal.”), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).

ANALYSIS

  1. Constitutional Claims

¶78      We first address Parents’ assertion that the “juvenile court process” that resulted in the termination of their parental rights violated their constitutional rights. We describe Parents’ specific claims in more detail below, but before we discuss the particulars of those claims, we pause to emphasize two critical background points, one legal and one factual, that help frame our analysis.

¶79      The legal background point is straightforward and should go without saying: a parent has no general right, whether statutory or constitutional, to abuse or neglect a child for religious reasons.

¶80 Utah’s child welfare statutes regarding abuse of a child have no exceptions allowing abuse to occur on religious grounds. In the child welfare context, “[a]buse” means (among other things) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a). The governing statute specifies that “reasonable discipline” of a child does not constitute “[a]buse,” nor does “reasonable and necessary physical restraint or force” applied in defense from or protection of the child or others. Id. § 80-1-102(1)(b). But there is no statutory exception excusing abuse simply because it might be religiously motivated.

¶81      Similarly, in the child welfare context, “[n]eglect” includes “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent,” and includes “action or inaction causing . . . failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well­being.” Id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), (iii). The statutory definition of neglect does include one religious-based exception: a parent who is “legitimately practicing religious beliefs and who, for that reason, does not provide specified medical treatment for a child” has not neglected that child. Id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(i).[8] But other than this narrow exception, Utah’s statutes offer no room for a parent, on religious grounds, to take actions that would otherwise constitute neglect of a child.

¶82      Nor is there any constitutional right to abuse or neglect a child in the name of religion. To be sure, parents have a right to teach their children religious principles and to encourage them to comply with the tenets of a chosen religion. Kingston v. Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 24, 532 P.3d 958 (stating that “parents have a fundamental right” under the United States Constitution “to encourage their children in the practice of religion”). But such rights peter out where a parent’s religious practices result in mistreatment of a child. See Zummo v. Zummo, 574 A.2d 1130, 1154–55 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990) (noting that parents are “free to provide religious exposure and instruction” to their child as they see fit, “unless the challenged beliefs or conduct of the parent are demonstrated to present a substantial threat of present or future, physical or emotional harm to the child” (quoted in Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 67)); see also Prince v. Massachusetts321 U.S. 158, 166–67 (1944) (stating that “the state has a wide range of power for limiting parental freedom and authority in things affecting the child’s welfare,” including in “matters of conscience and religious conviction,” and noting that the state’s “authority” in this regard “is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s course of conduct on religion or conscience”); Koch v. Koch, 207 So. 3d 914, 915 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016) (noting courts’ ability to restrict a parent’s rights where there is “a clear, affirmative showing that the [parent’s] religious activities . . . will be harmful to the child” (quotation simplified)); In re Edward C., 178 Cal. Rptr. 694, 699 (Cal. Ct. App. 1981) (“Mistreatment of a child . . . is not privileged because it is imposed in the guise of freedom of religious expression.”); Amos N. Guiora, Protecting the Unprotected: Religious Extremism and Child Endangerment, 12 J.L. & Fam. Stud. 391, 405 (2010) (“Religious belief and conduct cannot be used as justification for placing children at risk; government, law enforcement and the general public cannot allow religion to hide behind a cloak of ‘religious immunity.’”).

¶83 Next, the factual background point is simply this: as discussed above, Parents have already been adjudicated to have abused or neglected the children, and those adjudications were not substantively challenged on appeal.

¶84 With regard to Father, the juvenile court found—after a five-day adjudication hearing—that Father had “emotionally abused” all four children. The court specifically discussed the rather stringent statutory definition of “emotional abuse” and recognized that it required a finding that a child has suffered “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(b). But the court comfortably made such findings with regard to Father, concluding that Father had engaged in “a continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment of the children which has resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment.” The court also found that Father had “created a hostile environment” for the children that caused them to suffer “emotional damage[],” and it found that Father’s “use of physical force” was part of the “abusive parenting style” that he “used to intimidate and control the children.”

¶85 With regard to Mother, the court determined—based on Mother’s own rule 34(e) admissions—that all four children were neglected. In particular, the court concluded that Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah were neglected because Mother subjected them “to mistreatment or abuse and/or” because they “lack[ed] proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother], and/or” because Mother had “failed to provide proper and necessary subsistence, education or medical care when required or any other care necessary for health, safety, morals or well being of the children.” And the court found that Noah was neglected as to Mother since he was “at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home is neglected or abused.”

¶86 Mother did not appeal the court’s adjudication order. Father did, but he raised only one argument—a procedural one— in his appellate petition; he mounted no appellate challenge to the substance of the court’s adjudication order. In an unpublished decision, we rejected Father’s procedural argument and affirmed his adjudication order.

¶87 Thus, Parents have been adjudicated to have abused or neglected the children, and those adjudications were either not appealed or were affirmed on appeal. In light of these facts, Father’s attorney agreed, at oral argument before this court, that the adjudication order is now part of the case and that we, for purposes of this appeal, must therefore take it “as it is.” As we understand it, this concession is in keeping with Utah law. An adjudication order is “final for purposes of appeal,” see In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 13, 67 P.3d 1037, and “where a final ruling or order of the trial court goes unchallenged by appeal, such becomes the law of the case, and is not thereafter subject to later challenge,” see SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer, 2023 UT App 120, ¶ 29, 538 P.3d 231 (quotation simplified). We have, on several occasions, refused to allow parents to re-litigate adjudication orders in the context of appeals from later orders. See In re D.G., 2014 UT App 22, ¶ 5, 319 P.3d 768 (stating that “matters relating to the adjudication hearing are barred” from consideration on appeal from a termination order where the parent “did not appeal the adjudication order”); see also In re E.T., 2014 UT App 206, ¶ 2, 335 P.3d 394 (per curiam) (stating that where a parent “failed to timely appeal [an] adjudication order, we lack jurisdiction to consider an appeal of that order” in an appeal from a later order).

¶88 Given these background principles and facts, Parents cannot—and here make no serious attempt to[9]—argue that the adjudication findings should be reversed, or that their underlying abuse and neglect should be excused on religious grounds. Instead, they make narrower constitutional arguments.

¶89      They begin by asserting, in general terms, that the “juvenile court process” that led to the termination of their parental rights violated their constitutional rights to parent their children and, in particular, their right to encourage their children in the practice of religion. They then point out—citing Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 29— that “any state interference with parents’ right to encourage their children in the practice of religion . . . is subject to strict scrutiny.” And they conclude by arguing that their right to encourage their children regarding religion was infringed during the case, specifically asserting that DCFS “cannot have made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services if it does not employ the least restrictive means available.”

¶90 As examples of what they claim to have been “state interference” with their right to encourage the children in the practice of religion, Parents point to two things: (1) the rule Therapist put in place, at the behest of the children, that Parents not discuss religion with the children during family therapy sessions; and (2) the court’s refusal to grant Father’s request that Therapist be removed from the case and replaced with “a therapist more understanding of his religious beliefs.”[10] We find Parents’ arguments unpersuasive.

¶91 We first discuss Parents’ arguments regarding the rule forbidding them from discussing religion during family therapy. In this case, we need not decide whether Parents’ constitutional right to encourage their children in the practice of religion requires the State to allow Parents to offer such encouragement during therapy sessions provided by the State as part of reunification services. Nor do we need to decide—even assuming there is such a requirement—whether the rule imposed here satisfied strict scrutiny review by being “narrowly tailored to protect a compelling government interest.” Id. ¶ 61 (quotation simplified). Given the record before us, we may avoid these questions because even assuming, for purposes of the discussion only, that there was a constitutional violation in this regard, any such violation was clearly harmless here. See In re A.R., 2017 UT App 153, ¶¶ 11−13, 402 P.3d 206 (affirming the termination of a parent’s rights in the face of an asserted constitutional violation because, even if the court committed constitutional error, the error was harmless); see also In re I.M.L., 2002 UT 110, ¶ 9 n.3, 61 P.3d 1038 (“Generally, we avoid reaching constitutional issues if a case can be decided on other grounds.”). The evidence presented at the termination trial showed that Father paid no heed to the rule in any event and simply went ahead—against the children’s request, communicated through Therapist—and discussed religion with the children during the family therapy sessions.[11] Given Father’s refusal to follow it, Parents do not explain how the rule’s short-lived existence made any difference here; in particular, they make no effort to demonstrate how the therapy sessions would have been different or more productive had the rule not been in place. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, the rule was only in effect for about five weeks, because the juvenile court ordered it removed at the first opportunity. As soon as Parents asked that the rule be removed, the court granted that request; Parents do not explain what the juvenile court could have done better or more speedily with regard to this rule. In short, we see no reasonable likelihood that the temporary imposition of a rule disallowing Parents to discuss religion during therapy sessions affected the outcome of the proceedings.[12]

¶92 Next, with regard to Parents’ second example of asserted “state interference”—their claim that they had a constitutional right to a therapist whose religious beliefs matched their own— we likewise reject Parents’ argument without entirely reaching its merits. Even if we assume—without deciding, and for purposes of the argument only—that Parents had a constitutional right to a therapist whose religious beliefs matched their own, Parents’ argument on this point nevertheless fails because Parents have not explained exactly how—or even whether—Therapist’s religious beliefs or practices differed from their own. The record is silent as to what Therapist’s religion was—we therefore do not know whether she was a member of Parents’ religion or not. And Father conceded, during his testimony, that his objection to Therapist was not based on whether she shared his religion or not, explaining that he doesn’t “just look at a person on an LDS basis.” He explained, instead, that he wanted the children to have a therapist who agreed with him on the “eternal values or principles” that he “believe[d] govern the universe.” But in his briefing, Father makes no effort to identify what those “values or principles” are, whether they derive from his religion or from some other source, or how they might have differed from Therapist’s religious beliefs and practices.

¶93 Indeed, the GAL argues, with some force, that Father’s objectionable behavior was not grounded in the tenets of any religion but, instead, simply amounted to Father’s personal belief that, as head of the household, he had the right to bully and intimidate his children and to say whatever he wanted whenever he wanted during family therapy sessions. After all, even Father’s own religious leader considered Father’s similar behavior during the meeting at the church to be inappropriate and by no means compelled by tenets of their shared religion. And it is noteworthy that all four children—even after removal and despite the abuse and neglect they experienced—have remained steadfast adherents of the religion they share with Parents. Thus, one might reasonably conclude that Father’s conflict with Therapist had nothing whatsoever to do with specific religious tenets and everything to do with Father’s personality. At a minimum, Parents have not carried their appellate burden of persuading us that the situation is otherwise. And we note that courts have rejected similar claims in analogous cases on the basis that the parent had not “establish[ed] a clear relationship between” his or her “religious faith” and the specific “discipline” imposed on the children. See, e.g.Jakab v. Jakab, 664 A.2d 261, 265 (Vt. 1995); see also In re H.M., 144 N.E.3d 1124, 1148 (Ohio Ct. App. 2019) (noting that the “record is scant on defining the parents’ actual religious beliefs” and whether they motivated the behavior in question).

¶94      For these reasons, we see no constitutional infirmity in the juvenile court’s refusal to grant Father’s request for a different family therapist in this case.

¶95      We note again that Parents’ overarching argument is that

“the State could not have made reasonable efforts if its actions do not pass strict scrutiny.”[13] Yet as to the two ways Parents allege that the State’s actions do not pass muster, Parents have in one instance failed to show any actual infringement of a constitutional right, and in the other they have failed to persuade us that reunification services would have been more successful in the absence of the alleged constitutional violation. Thus, we perceive no error in the juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination, and we reject Parents’ claims that, during the “juvenile court process,” their constitutional rights were violated.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶96 Next, Parents assert that they received ineffective assistance of counsel during the termination proceedings. “To establish [an] ineffective assistance of counsel claim, [a party] must show that counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the case.” In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 9, 522 P.3d 39 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). “Failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim,” and therefore we are “free to address [Parents’] claims under either prong.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quotation simplified).

¶97 Parents each make one argument in this regard. We first address Father’s contention that his attorney was ineffective for not objecting to “improper bolstering evidence” presented during the termination trial. Second, we address Mother’s argument that her attorney rendered ineffective assistance “by failing to object to” the terms of Mother’s Plan. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that neither Father nor Mother has borne their burden of establishing that their attorneys rendered ineffective assistance.

  1. Father’s Claim

¶98      Father asserts that his attorney rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to certain testimony, offered by the State’s witnesses during the termination trial, that Father characterizes as “improper bolstering evidence.” Father points to three statements that he believes amounted to improper bolstering of the children’s accounts of things that happened in the family home. First, he points to Therapist’s statements that Chloe was “not exaggerating her symptoms or faking how she was feeling” when reporting suicidal ideations and seeking medication and that she was being “pretty honest” in her descriptions, as well as to Therapist’s similar statement that the threats of suicide that Chloe and Felicity had made were not “fabricated” and were not “attention getters.” Second, he complains about a different therapist’s testimony that “there was never anything that [Noah] or [Hannah] told [her] relating to their experiences” at home “that would lead [her] to believe they were being dishonest.” Finally, Father identifies Branch President’s testimony that, during his communication with Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah in the August 2018 meeting, he had no concerns that “the girls were making these things up.”

¶99      Father asserts that these statements were inadmissible and that a reasonable attorney would have objected to these statements in an effort to keep them out. He further asserts that, given the importance of the children’s credibility to the issues before the court, the admission of these statements was ultimately prejudicial to him and led the court to believe the children’s accounts over his own.

¶100 We have our doubts about whether a reasonable attorney would have objected to these statements, given the importance of many of them to therapeutic diagnosis and treatment. But even assuming, for the purposes of argument, that Father’s attorney performed deficiently by not objecting to these statements, the admission of these statements did not prejudice Father on the specific facts of this case. To establish prejudice, Father must do more than “show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” State v. Samora, 2023 UT 5, ¶ 22, 529 P.3d 330 (quotation simplified). He bears the burden of demonstrating “that the decision reached would reasonably likely have been different absent trial counsel’s alleged errors.” Id. (quotation simplified). Father cannot meet that burden here.

¶101 By the time the termination trial rolled around, the court had already conducted numerous hearings in this case; most notably, it had held a five-day adjudication trial in which it had heard from the children and from various therapists and caseworkers, and it had already entered extensive findings and conclusions. In particular, as noted above, the court had already engaged in the process of determining whether Chloe and Felicity had felt genuine suicidal ideations, and concluded that they had; likewise, the court had already engaged in the process of determining whether Father had emotionally abused the children and concluded that he had. Given that the court had already made these findings, which were not substantively appealed, we cannot conclude that there is any reasonable likelihood that—absent the challenged statements—the court would, at the termination trial, have changed its entire outlook on the events in the home and made antipodally different findings than the ones it had already made at the adjudication trial.

¶102 Under these circumstances, Father cannot demonstrate that he was prejudiced by any deficient performance on the part of his attorney. Accordingly, his ineffective assistance of counsel claim necessarily fails.

  1. Mother’s Claim

¶103 Mother asserts that her attorney rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to the terms of Mother’s Plan and to “the State’s failure to provide the recommended services,” and by not requesting a “modified service plan” better tailored to Mother’s needs. According to Mother, “[r]easonable counsel would have understood the importance of the service plan and the services recommended by it,” and she maintains that, if she had received the benefit of a modified plan, there is a “reasonable likelihood that the court would not have determined that Mother had failed to complete the services.”

¶104 During the termination trial, the psychologist who evaluated Mother testified that Mother has dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and dementia, and that Mother might also suffer from aphasia but would need additional testing for that diagnosis to be confirmed. The psychologist opined that someone with Mother’s conditions would likely experience some struggles in daily life and may need “assistance and accommodations.” At the time, Mother’s attorney did not object to Mother’s Plan or assert that it should include any additional services to accommodate these diagnoses.

¶105 Now, however, Mother asserts that her attorney should have objected and should have requested that Mother’s Plan include additional services intended to assist Mother with these diagnoses and conditions. But here on appeal, Mother does not identify—let alone meaningfully discuss—any specific services she now wishes counsel would have requested, and she has therefore failed to demonstrate that she was prejudiced by counsel’s failure to make a request. Without identifying any specific services she would have liked to have received, it is impossible for her to show that such services would have been reasonably likely to have made a difference here, especially in the face of the established facts: that Mother was steadfast in her loyalty to Father, that she at all times refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the situation, and that she failed to undertake efforts to remedy the circumstances that caused the children to be in an out-of-home placement.

¶106 Like Father, Mother has not borne her burden of demonstrating that she was prejudiced by any deficient performance on the part of her attorney. Accordingly, her ineffective assistance of counsel claim likewise fails.

III. Challenges to the Juvenile Court’s Factual Findings

¶107 Next, we address Father’s assertion that a handful of the juvenile court’s factual findings were clearly erroneous and unsupported by the evidence presented at the termination trial. Father identifies four such findings; we discuss each of them, in turn, and conclude that none of them are problematic.

¶108 First, Father challenges the court’s finding that Chloe “spoke about suicidal thoughts while she lived at home.” This finding is amply supported by the evidence presented at the termination trial. Chloe testified, on direct, that she had told Father that she was “suicidal,” and that he responded by telling her that if she killed herself she would “go to hell.” On cross-examination, she explained that she had told Father that, when he treats her “like crap,” it makes her “feel like [she] just want[s] to commit suicide.” She did acknowledge that she made the comment in a kind of in-passing way, and that “it wasn’t like [she] sat [Father] down and said, ‘Dad this is a serious thing. I’m seriously considering [suicide].’” But this testimony is more than enough to support a finding that Chloe “spoke about suicidal thoughts while she lived at home.”

¶109 Moreover, the court had already found, in the adjudication trial, that Chloe’s suicidal ideations were genuine. In these earlier proceedings, the court had already learned that Parents had been informed of Chloe’s feelings well before the children were removed from the home and that they had downplayed any concerns, calling Chloe a “drama queen” and indicating that they did not believe her. Under these circumstances, ample evidence supported the court’s finding that Chloe spoke about her suicidal ideations while still living in Parents’ home.

¶110 Second, Father challenges the court’s characterization that Brother-in-Law testified that the children attended post-removal visits with Father “because it [was] what they [were] supposed to do and [they] [didn’t] engage very well.” Father asserts that the court’s characterization of Brother-in-Law’s testimony is inaccurate, and he points to a different statement Brother-in-Law made indicating that the children did not like the visits because “it interrupt[ed] their schedule.” While it’s true that Brother-in-Law said that the visits interrupted the children’s schedule, the record also shows that he testified that the children were “not very engaged” during visits but “[t]hey underst[ood] that’s what they [were] supposed to do, and so they [attended], begrudgingly sometimes, but they [were] there.” We fail to see how the juvenile court’s omission of Brother-in-Law’s additional statement that the visits interrupted the children’s schedule somehow renders the court’s finding erroneous.

¶111 Third, Father challenges the court’s statement that Noah testified that he would not feel “safe” at home. Father argues that this statement is erroneous because, as he sees it, Noah later “retracted that statement” and testified that he “didn’t mean to say safe.” Father then directs us to the portion of Noah’s testimony he believes supports his position. At this point in his testimony, Noah was being asked about the circumstances surrounding Oldest Sister’s departure from Parents’ home. He was specifically asked what he meant by his statement that she left because it “wasn’t safe.” Noah then clarified that he “probably didn’t mean to say safe” and that what he meant to convey was that Oldest Sister had gone through similar experiences to his own in living with Parents and that was the reason she left. But Noah’s statement that he did not mean to say that Oldest Sister left because it was not safe is not a retraction of his earlier statement that it was his personal belief that Parents’ house “wasn’t a safe environment.” Father mischaracterizes the record on this point and has fallen far short of persuading us that the court’s finding on this issue was clearly erroneous.

¶112 Finally, Father challenges the court’s finding that Brother-in-Law testified that the children “stopped hoarding food in their bedrooms.” Father argues that the actual testimony was about “hiding” food—not “hoarding” food—and asserts that there was no evidence that the children were malnourished or underfed while in Father’s care. We do not see a significant difference, in this context, between “hiding” food and “hoarding” food—however characterized, there is no question that the children secreted food in their bedrooms; Brother-in-Law explained that the children were “afraid to ask for more food” so they would take extra snacks to their bedrooms and “store” the food for later. Under these circumstances, we do not consider the court’s characterization of the evidence to have been clearly erroneous.

¶113 Accordingly, we reject each of Father’s challenges to the juvenile court’s factual findings.

  1. Best Interest/Strictly Necessary

¶114 Finally, we address Parents’ various challenges to the court’s conclusions that termination of their rights was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of Hannah and Noah. Both Parents raise a direct challenge to the substance of the court’s decision. In addition, Mother raises additional issues regarding the court’s handling of the GAL’s rule 59 motion. We first discuss Father’s substantive challenge, and then separately discuss Mother’s two arguments.

  1. Father’s Claim

¶115 Before the rights of any parent are terminated, the party seeking termination must establish (1) that “at least one of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination [is] present” and (2) that the “termination of parental rights [is] in the best interest of the affected children.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 16, 535 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that sufficient statutory grounds for termination are present, but they do challenge the court’s conclusion that termination of their rights is in the children’s best interest.

¶116 The best-interest inquiry is “wide-ranging” and “asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances” of a child’s situation, including “the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 35, 37, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified); see also In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14, 455 P.3d 1098 (“The best-interest test is broad, and is intended as a holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” (quotation simplified)).

¶117 Our legislature has mandated that termination of parental rights is permissible only when such termination is “strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). Our supreme court has interpreted this statutory requirement to mean that “termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. Indeed, a court’s inquiry into the strict necessity of termination should take place as part of the best-interest inquiry that comprises the second part of the termination test. See id. ¶ 76 (“[A]s part of [the best-interest] inquiry, a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest.”). And our supreme court has noted that

this part of the inquiry also requires courts to explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights. In some cases, alternatives will be few and unsatisfactory, and termination of the parent’s rights will be the option that is in the child’s best interest. But in other cases, courts should consider whether other less-permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well.

Id. ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. ¶ 66.

¶118 In this case, the court seriously considered one non-termination option: imposing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement in favor of Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. However, for various reasons, the court concluded that this option was not in the children’s best interest, and therefore it ordered termination of Parents’ rights. Parents each challenge the court’s conclusion in this regard.

¶119 With regard to Father, the court stated that it did “not find this alternative [of permanent custody and guardianship] to be in the children’s best interest,” and it offered “[a] couple of examples” to “illustrate the basis for this decision.” First, the court pointed to both Psychiatrist and Branch President, and noted that they had each found Father’s behavior to be so aberrant that they had taken action they’d never before taken: they sent letters to DCFS or to the court indicating their belief that Father was a danger to the children. Second, the court raised a concern about Father retaining residual parental rights, noting that, under a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement, Father “would still be in the orbit of” Hannah and Noah and could “assert[] his will as to basic medical and otherwise personal decisions in the care of the children.”

¶120 Father challenges the court’s best-interest determination, and he makes two arguments, one categorical and one fact-specific. First, Father asserts that parental rights can never be terminated where children are in a kinship placement, as these children are here with Oldest Sister. We reject this position. No Utah statute mandates this position, and we have never so held. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49, 518 P.3d 993 (“We stop well short of holding that, where an acceptable kinship placement exists, it can never be strictly necessary to terminate a parent’s rights.”), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). To be sure, “[i]f there exists a completely appropriate kinship placement through which the family can remain intact, the ‘strictly necessary’ showing becomes significantly harder to make.” Id. But such a showing is not impossible; indeed, staking out the categorical position Father advocates makes no sense in this context. It does not take much imagination to think of situations in which a parent’s relationship with a child is so harmful and abusive that it is strictly necessary, if the child’s best interest is to be promoted, to permanently sever that relationship, regardless of whether the child is placed with a relative. We therefore reject Father’s assertion that a parent’s rights can never be terminated if the children are placed with a relative.

¶121 Second, Father takes issue with the court’s residual rights concern. Here, Father points out that, in a permanent custody and guardianship situation, he would retain only four residual rights and duties: “(i) the responsibility for support; (ii) the right to consent to adoption; (iii) the right to determine the child’s religious affiliation; and (iv) the right to reasonable parent-time unless restricted by the court.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(70)(a). Because the first of these is a duty and the last of these can be restricted by the court, Father asserts that we need be concerned only with the second and the third: Father’s right to consent to adoption and his right to determine the children’s religious affiliation. Father asserts that his residual rights would therefore not allow him to “assert his will” with regard to “basic medical and otherwise personal decisions,” as the juvenile court stated.

¶122 We acknowledge Father’s point, and we note our own recently expressed concern that juvenile courts may, in many cases, be overly concerned about parents retaining residual rights where permanent custody and guardianship arrangements are imposed. See, e.g.In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55 (questioning “whether—in many cases . . . —a parent’s desire to re-engage in their child’s life should be viewed as negatively as the juvenile court appeared to view it”); In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶¶ 23–24 (explaining why that case was “not one of those cases” in which “fear of a parent’s residual rights might reasonably counsel in favor of terminating” a parent’s rights).

¶123 But we also note, again, that we review best-interest determinations “deferentially,” and we overturn them only if the court “either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 15 (quotation simplified). On a couple of recent occasions, we have reversed juvenile courts’ best-interest/strictly-necessary decisions, even applying this deferential standard, because in our view “the evidence presented at trial did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of [the parents’ rights] would be in the best interest” of the affected children. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38; see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 31 (stating that, “[i]n the end, the facts of this case simply don’t add up to strict necessity”). But in other situations—like this one, for the reasons we discuss—the facts as presented at trial lend themselves to more than one possible conclusion. In such cases, our somewhat deferential standard of review will lead us to affirm, because either result will be supported by the facts of the case and will be within the discretion of the court.

¶124 In this vein, we draw an illustrative contrast between the facts of this case and the facts of In re D.S. In that case, the father was incarcerated, and he conceded that he was unable to care for his children and that therefore statutory grounds existed for termination of his parental rights. See 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 13. But he nevertheless resisted termination, asserting that it was not in the children’s best interest for that to occur. Id. ¶ 15. He had maintained regular virtual visits with the children throughout his incarceration—visits that had gone fairly well, although the children sometimes were bored during the visits— and he expressed a desire to “have a stronger relationship with” his children upon his release. Id. ¶ 11. The children were placed with the father’s own mother, who wanted to adopt them. Id. ¶¶ 9, 14. The juvenile court ordered the father’s rights terminated because it viewed adoption by the paternal grandmother as offering “stability,” and because it believed that adoption was necessary to “protect” the children “from [the father’s] desire to have ongoing and frequent visitation” after his release. Id. ¶¶ 13– 14.

¶125 We reversed the termination order. We noted that “there is no indication that [the father’s] continuing relationship with [the children] is harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient.” Id. ¶ 24. In particular, we noted that there were no allegations of abuse or neglect regarding the father, and that the children had been “found only dependent—not abused or neglected—as to him.” Id. And we observed that, given “the absence of a ‘harmfulness’ component” to the father’s relationship with the children, there was “no basis for the juvenile court’s view that [the children] need ‘protections against [the father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation.’” Id. ¶ 27. Relatedly, we noted the absence of any evidence that the father and the grandmother had “the sort of relationship where [the father] would be likely to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions in a guardianship arrangement.” Id. ¶ 32.

¶126 Finally, we placed “almost no stock in” the juvenile court’s reference to the desires of the children, for two reasons. Id. ¶ 29. First, the children were quite young—eleven and six—and the court had made no determination that they were old enough to offer a meaningful opinion as to the differences between adoption and guardianship. Id. Second, and more substantively, “the trial testimony did not support any finding on this issue more specific than that [the children]—quite understandably— wanted to remain in [their grandmother’s] care.” Id. ¶ 30. In particular, “no witness offered any testimony that could support a finding that either of [the children] actually understood and appreciated the distinction between adoption and guardianship, and that, based on that understanding, they preferred adoption.” Id.

¶127 In this case, by contrast, the operative facts are quite different. First, and most importantly, there is a significant “harm” component to this case that was entirely absent in In re D.S. Here, the juvenile court found—after a lengthy adjudication trial—that all four minor children had “been emotionally abused” in a “continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment” by Father and that this “ongoing abusive environment [had] emotionally damaged the children.” Father mounted no substantive appeal from these adjudicated facts, and he agrees that we must take those facts as they are. Moreover, Father failed to take advantage of any of the services provided to him to address his abusive behavior; indeed, the court found—in findings not appealed here—that Father had “made no efforts,” or “only token efforts,” to address and eliminate “the issues of emotional abuse which exist in the home.” At the conclusion of the termination trial, the juvenile court therefore had every reason to believe that Father— if allowed a continuing relationship with the children—would continue his abusive behavior just as he had in the past. Under the particular circumstances of this case, the juvenile court’s concern about residual rights was entirely justified.

¶128 Second, given the emotional abuse issues present here, there is also good reason to believe that Father—if allowed to retain residual rights—would leverage the fact that he still had parental rights to attempt to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions, and would not just limit his role to consenting to adoption and any change in religious affiliation. In the past, Father had attempted to exercise his domineering ways over Oldest Sister, even once “backhand[ing]” her when, as an adult, she declined his demand to clean his house during a visit. And the incident involving Father’s attempt to interfere with Chloe’s medical appointment—even after removal—is well-documented and has already been discussed. We therefore view the court’s finding regarding Father’s propensity to interfere in custody and care decisions as entirely supported by the record here.

¶129 Finally, the court in this case had strong evidence of what the children’s individual desires were. Unlike in In re D.S., all four of the children here, by the conclusion of the trial, were at least fourteen years old, and all of them were able to articulate clear opinions about what their desired outcome was. And all of them told the court, in no uncertain terms, that they wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and that they did not want to have any relationship with Father.[14] As noted below, the juvenile court was to give the children’s desires in this regard “added weight.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(15).

¶130 For all of these reasons, then, we see no reversible error in the juvenile court’s conclusion that, in this case, it was in the children’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated. Such a decision was within the discretion of the juvenile court and was supported by the record.

  1. Mother’s Arguments

¶131 With regard to Mother, the court initially declined to terminate her rights, instead imposing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement in favor of Oldest Sister. After consideration of the GAL’s rule 59 motion, however, the court changed course and terminated Mother’s rights along with Father’s, concluding that it had failed to give the proper weight to the children’s stated wishes for adoption.

¶132 Mother challenges the court’s termination order on two grounds. First, she asserts that the court erred by allowing the GAL to submit evidence, in connection with the rule 59 motion, of certain post-trial events. Second, she mounts a substantive challenge, similar to Father’s, to the court’s conclusion that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest. We discuss these two arguments in turn.

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¶133 After oral argument on the GAL’s rule 59 motion, the court allowed the GAL to submit a “Report and Recommendation” that included an affidavit from Brother-in-Law describing events that had occurred after the termination trial. Mother believes that the court erred by considering this “new evidence” in reaching its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights. We take Mother’s point that evidence of post-trial proceedings should ordinarily play no role in considering whether to grant a new trial. See In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 14, 166 P.3d 608 (“A motion for a new trial or amended judgment cannot be based on facts occurring subsequent to trial . . . .” (quotation simplified)). But even assuming, for the purposes of the argument, that the court erred by allowing the GAL to submit this evidence, any such error was harmless here because there is no indication that Brother-in-Law’s affidavit played any role in the court’s decision.

¶134 In its ruling granting the GAL’s motion, the court included an introductory paragraph informing the parties that, before making its decision, it had “review[e]d” rule 59, “the filings and arguments of the parties,” the “prior testimony from the termination trial,” and its “original findings and order.” The court made no specific mention of Brother-in-Law’s post-argument affidavit. And later in its order, when setting forth the actual basis for its decision, it explained that it was amending its initial order because “the children’s wishes or voice were not given proper weight” as mandated by governing statute. It noted again that it had reviewed its own “previous findings and conclusions” as well as “the trial testimony and exhibits,” especially the children’s testimony in which they were “direct in seeking to be adopted” by Oldest Sister. In explaining the substance of its decision, the court made no mention at all of any post-trial events or of Brother-in-Law’s affidavit, and it explained that the basis for its decision rested on entirely different grounds.

¶135 Under these circumstances, any error on the part of the court in allowing the submission of evidence of post-trial events did not affect the court’s grant of the GAL’s rule 59 motion. We therefore see no basis for reversal of the court’s rule 59 decision in the arguably improper submission of Brother-in-Law’s affidavit. See State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 10 n.1, 994 P.2d 1237 (“We do not reverse a trial court for committing harmless error.”).

2

¶136 Next, Mother challenges the substance of the court’s decision to terminate her parental rights. Here, we reach the same conclusion we reached in considering Father’s similar challenge: while the juvenile court could potentially have imposed a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement on these facts, we perceive no reversible error in its conclusion that termination of Mother’s rights was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest.

¶137 As an initial matter, the court correctly interpreted the statutes governing a child’s stated desires. Under Utah law, “if the minor desires an opportunity to address the juvenile court or testify,” the court “shall . . . allow the minor” to do so. Utah Code § 80-3-108(4)(a)(ii). Moreover, when “determining whether termination is in the best interest of the child,” the court should consider the relevant factors “from the child’s point of view.” Id. § 80-4-104(12)(b). The juvenile court heard from Hannah and Noah, and thereafter correctly noted that they “were straightforward in stating that they wished to be adopted by” Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. The court also noted that, when a minor is fourteen years old or older, “the juvenile court shall give the minor’s wishes added weight” and, if the court’s decision “differs from a minor’s express wishes,” then the court must “make findings explaining” its decision. Id. § 80-3-409(15). At the time the court issued its ruling, Hannah was seventeen and Noah was fourteen; the statute thus required the court to give their wishes “added weight.” And that is exactly what the court did. After further analyzing “the testimony and evidence from the trial on the termination petition, with emphasis on the children’s testimony, and with further review” of the relevant statutes, the court was persuaded that its previous order should be amended and that Mother’s parental rights should be terminated. We perceive no error in the court’s procedure in this regard.

¶138 Mother further challenges the court’s substantive decision, and we acknowledge that, with regard to her, certain factors weigh perhaps more in her favor—or, at least, not as strongly against her—than they do with regard to Father. Her relationship with the children was less actively harmful than Father’s, and there is little if any evidence that she tended to attempt to manipulate her relationship with Oldest Sister. We therefore understand, at some level, the juvenile court’s initial inclination to keep her relationship with the children intact, even while terminating Father’s.

¶139 But ultimately, we agree with the State and the GAL that sufficient evidence exists in this record to support the juvenile court’s reconsidered determination to terminate Mother’s rights as well. There was evidence supporting the conclusion that Mother’s relationship with the children was harmful, even if to a lesser extent than Father’s. And Mother adamantly elected to remain in a relationship with Father, an adjudicated emotional abuser who refused to take steps to remedy the situation. We have previously noted that juvenile courts “have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety.” See In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529; see also In re G.B., 2002 UT App 270, ¶ 17, 53 P.3d 963 (upholding a juvenile court’s finding that termination of a mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interest where the mother continued to foster a relationship with the children’s abusive father, “had no intention of separating from” him, and “continue[d] to deny that any abuse occurred”), cert. denied, 63 P.3d 104 (Utah 2002).

¶140 And the children were adamant that they wanted to be adopted and that they wanted no continuing relationship with Parents, a consideration to which the court was statutorily obligated to give “added weight.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(15). Mother appears to recognize that the juvenile court’s decision came down to a “weighing of factors,” asserting in her appellate brief that the court “performed an inappropriate weighing of factors.” While a different judge might have weighed the factors differently and opted to keep Mother’s relationship with the children intact, we cannot say that the juvenile court, on this record, committed reversible error by exercising its discretion in the opposite direction.

CONCLUSION

¶141 In sum, Parents have not carried their burden of demonstrating any violation of their constitutional rights. Parents have also not established that either of their trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance. Additionally, we perceive no clear error in any of the challenged factual findings. The juvenile court’s determination that termination of Parents’ parental rights was strictly necessary to advance the children’s best interest was supported by the record, and we perceive no reversible error in the court’s grant of the GAL’s rule 59 motion.

¶142 Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Hannah and Noah are pseudonyms, which we elect to employ here to avoid continued and potentially confusing repetition of similar-sounding initials.

[2] In cases like this one, where parties are appealing the determination made following a termination trial, “we recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, n.2, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified).

[3] Chloe and Felicity are also pseudonyms.

[4] All four children waived the clergy testimonial privilege to allow Branch President to testify at this and other proceedings throughout this matter.

[5] A second therapist also recalled this incident, later testifying that Father became “aggressive” and was yelling at Therapist about DCFS “framing his family” and how there was a “large conspiracy . . . brought on through DCFS” and “the State of Utah.”

[6] During later testimony, Father testified about the group therapy sessions and, specifically, about the issues he had with Therapist, and he attempted to explain his perception that Therapist did not have “the same values” as Father. When specifically asked whether he wanted a therapist who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Father stated that he doesn’t “just look at a person on an LDS basis.” He explained, instead, that he wanted the children to have a therapist who agreed with him on the “eternal values or principles” that he “believe[d] govern the universe.”

[7] Mother later asked the court to “set aside” her rule 34(e) plea and requested “that a new trial be ordered to address the allegations” in the State’s petition. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). The basis for this request was that Mother claimed “she was not certain of what a [r]ule 34(e) proceeding involved and the resulting consequences.” The court denied Mother’s request, stating that Mother had “affirmatively waived her right to a trial” and that the court had “confirmed that she understood she was waiving her right to trial.” The court had even gone a step further and “had a colloquy specifically with [Mother] and her counsel wherein she indicated she understood” the implications of proceeding under rule 34(e) “and the resulting findings that would be made as a result of that course of action.”

[8] At the adjudication stage, Mother—the parent who was found to have neglected (as opposed to abused) the children—did not attempt to invoke this religious-based statutory exception. Nor does she invoke it here on appeal. Accordingly, as far as we are aware, this exception is not at issue in this case.

[9] 9. As noted, Parents do not challenge the determination that statutory grounds for termination of their parental rights were present in this case. But Parents do assert, in their briefs, that the State interfered with their “right to make value-based decisions regarding the upbringing” of the children. This argument is not independently developed, and—especially in light of Father’s attorney’s concession at oral argument—we do not interpret it as a frontal attack on the juvenile court’s adjudication findings. However, to the extent it is intended as such, we reject that challenge not only because it is inadequately briefed but also because any challenge to the adjudication findings needed to have been made in an appeal from the adjudication order. See In re D.G., 2014 UT App 22, ¶ 5, 319 P.3d 768.

[10] In addition to these two arguments, Mother complains—in passing, during the “constitutional” section of her brief—that the court improperly “utiliz[ed]” her “continued association with Father as evidence that she had failed to make adequate effort to adjust her conduct to substantially correct the circumstances that led to” the children’s removal. But Mother does not develop this argument; in particular, she makes no attempt to explain how this argument might have constitutional dimension. As noted, infra ¶ 139, it is not improper for a juvenile court to take into account, in making a termination decision, the fact that a parent insists on continuing a relationship with an abusive person.

[11] The rule also seemingly had little to no impact on Mother’s therapy sessions with the children. Mother testified that she only remembered being told about the children’s rules during the first two therapy sessions and, from her recollection, the children “brought all those things up” anyway.

[12] We also wonder whether there was any state action involved here at all, given that the rule in question was envisioned and requested by the children themselves. See In re adoption of B.Y., 2015 UT 67, ¶ 16, 356 P.3d 1215 (stating that the constitution protects “against state action,” not against “the actions of private parties”). But this issue was not briefed by the parties, and we therefore offer no opinion on the subject.

[13] While Parents couch their claim, at times, in the language of “reasonable efforts,” we note that their claim is not a traditional challenge to a juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination. In particular, Parents do not directly argue that either of the two things they challenge—the requirement that they participate in family therapy with Therapist or the no-talking-about-religion rule—were not part of a “fair and serious attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 51, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified).

[14] In this case, Parents make no argument that any of the children were too young, or were for any other reason incompetent, to offer trial testimony about their desires regarding placement, adoption, and their ongoing relationship with Parents.

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State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77 – domestic violence prosecution

State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77

2023 UT App 77

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

HOUSTON RAEFAT HARARAH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220276-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Eighth District Court, Vernal Department

The Honorable Edwin T. Peterson

The Honorable Gregory M. Lamb

No. 201800299

Nicolas C. Wilde and Trevor J. Lee,

Attorneys for Appellant

Tegan M. Troutner and Rachelle Shumway,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Houston Raefat Hararah was charged with assault for throwing a potted plant at his then-girlfriend. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and proceeded to trial, following which he was convicted. He now contends that he was coerced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing because the district court[1] stated, at various points in the proceedings, that it would not permit Hararah to accept any plea deal if he chose to have a preliminary hearing. But the record indicates that Hararah rejected the State’s “best offer” and independently decided to waive the preliminary hearing and proceed to trial, so we cannot agree that the court forced his waiver. Hararah also asserts that his defense counsel (Counsel[2]) provided ineffective assistance for not objecting to the court’s allegedly problematic statements, as well as for telling the jury, during opening statements at trial, that they would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim, when the victim went on to testify that he did so. We do not agree that his counsel performed deficiently in either respect, so we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        After police responded to an argument between Hararah and his then-girlfriend, Hararah was charged with assault, with a domestic violence enhancement. The Information alleged that Hararah “threw a potted plant at his girlfriend[,] striking her in the face and causing a cut above her eye.” As a result, the district court issued a no-contact order against Hararah. At a hearing to review the no-contact order, held in July 2020, the following exchange took place between Hararah, the district court, and Counsel:

Counsel:  Judge, do you want to keep [the next hearing] on the 28th? I think that at this point, I’ve discussed a plea with Mr. Hararah and it looks like we’re probably going to be setting it for a preliminary hearing.

District Court:  Well, let’s go ahead and . . . take it on the 28th and see—Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.

Hararah:  Yes, Your Honor.

District Court:  Okay. Well, you think long and hard on that and I’ll talk to you on the 28th. Thank you.

¶3        The minutes for the next hearing, held in August 2020, indicate that “[t]he defendant request[ed] a Preliminary Hearing” and that “the [c]ourt set[] this matter for Preliminary Hearing.”

¶4        In court on the date set for the preliminary hearing, in September 2020, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Then the following exchange took place:

District Court:  So you talked to [Counsel] about what a preliminary hearing is[,] right?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Okay. And you are, in fact, willing to waive your rights to a preliminary hearing and allow the matter to be bound over; is that correct?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Very good. I will go ahead and allow the waiver[;] I’ll bind the matter over. How long do you think you need to have discussions, [Counsel]?

Counsel:  Your Honor, I think that the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah  has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get it on for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.

Later in the hearing, the district court added,

District Court: [W]e will have a trial as soon as possible. And seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation.

¶5        The case eventually went to trial, and during opening statements, Counsel said to the jury, “You will not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim] . . . . [Y]ou’ll hear . . . that the only item that he had to protect himself from [a] taser [the alleged victim held] was the plant that was on the floor. And he picked it up and he threw it so that he could get out . . . .”

¶6        But when the victim testified, she stated that Hararah had hit her through a pillow. She testified that the pair had been drinking and started arguing when “[a] verbal argument turned into a physical [one].” She said, “I had tried knocking over his drink. I knew the conversation wasn’t ending anywhere. He ended up on top of me hitting me.” She described how she tried to leave the room but “was hit in the face” with “a pillow and his fist.” She clarified that “he was punching [her] and hitting [her] through the pillow.”

¶7        Later in the trial and outside the presence of the jury, Counsel objected to “the uncharged misconduct that we’ve now heard about for the first time today, which is this witness . . . now saying that she was punched in the face by Mr. Hararah prior to the throwing of the plant.” Counsel asserted, “That is nowhere in the State’s discovery. It is not in the officer’s report, it isn’t anywhere in the body cam. And so what we are now entertaining is the fact that these jurors can . . . believe that the bruising on her face comes from those punches rather than from the plant.” Counsel explained why this was problematic: “We don’t have the ability to bring in a rebuttal expert to say, ‘Hey, do you think these bruis[es] came from punching or . . . from a plant?’ So, I maintain that [this] is prejudicial.” The trial court responded, “I’ve previously ruled during the course of the trial that I would allow the testimony as long as it was consecutive to the day . . . in question [and] I would allow testimony from . . . the witness about the arguing and the conduct that happened during that date in question.”

¶8        The State went on to call the deputy who had arrested Hararah. On cross-examination, he testified that “[t]he only assault [he] was aware of was the plant being thrown,” and he agreed that if the victim had “mentioned being punched in the face, [he] would have put that in [his] report.” In closing arguments, Counsel portrayed the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony.

¶9        Ultimately, the jury found Hararah guilty of domestic violence-related assault. Hararah now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Hararah presents two issues on appeal. First, he asserts that the district court erred “when it coerced [him] into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing by threatening to not allow him to accept a plea bargain from the State if he exercised his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing.” He argues that this error “violated Article I, Section 13 and Article V, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution; Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure 7(e) and 11(i); and our adversarial system of justice.” Hararah admits that this “issue was not preserved,” but he claims that “either the exceptional circumstances exception or the plain error exception applies here.”

¶11      Second, Hararah asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in two respects: (1) by “fail[ing] to object to the district court coercing [Hararah] into waiving his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing” and (2) by telling the jury “during opening statements that the jury would not hear any testimony about the alleged victim being punched.” “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and [the appellate court] must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

ANALYSIS

  1. Preliminary Hearing Waiver

¶12      Hararah argues that the district court “violated [his] rights . . . when it—by threatening to prevent him from accepting a plea deal from the State—forced him to waive his right to a preliminary hearing.” Hararah acknowledges that he did not object or otherwise preserve this argument. He argues that either the plain error exception or the exceptional circumstances exception applies. But Hararah cannot prevail under either theory.

  1. Plain Error

¶13      To show plain error, “a defendant must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, our confidence in the verdict is undermined.” State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13, 10 P.3d 346 (cleaned up).

¶14      We first address Hararah’s argument that the district court erred by “coercing” or “forcing” him to waive his right to the preliminary hearing. Hararah takes issue with the district court’s statement made at the July 2020 hearing: “Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.” The advisability of this comment[3] is immaterial here because the record indicates that Hararah chose to waive his right to a preliminary hearing for reasons unrelated to the district court’s statement. In other words, the record is clear that the court did not, in fact, force or coerce Hararah to waive the preliminary hearing because he made an independent choice to waive it.

¶15      At the outset of the September 2020 hearing, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Critically, Counsel also said during that hearing that “the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get [the case set] for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.”

¶16 We make much of the fact that Hararah waived his preliminary hearing in the same hearing in which he expressed his rejection of the State’s “best” plea offer. This shows that Hararah’s waiver was not based on the possibility of future bargaining or a fear that he would not be able to accept a plea deal if he had a preliminary hearing. Counsel did not indicate that Hararah anticipated any plea bargain better than the one the State had offered—as the plea bargain offered was already the “best offer” possible; instead, Counsel represented that Hararah had considered the offer and had decided to proceed to trial rather than accept the offered bargain. And Counsel did not mention the idea that the preliminary hearing was being waived to keep open the prospect of a future plea deal.

¶17      Hararah fails to provide us with any evidence supporting a belief that his independent desire to proceed to trial—after rejecting the State’s “best offer”—was not what drove his decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. If Hararah had represented in any way that he was forgoing the preliminary hearing because he was planning to accept a plea deal or wanted to keep his options open, the case before us would be quite different. But instead, the record demonstrates that Hararah was forgoing the preliminary hearing after having fully considered and rejected the State’s best offer and with the goal of going to trial as soon as possible. Accordingly, Hararah has not shown that any error took place, because there is no indication that the district court’s comment had any effect on Hararah’s actions.

¶18      Similarly, the district court’s post-waiver statement that “seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation” had no bearing on Hararah’s decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. At that point, Hararah had already made his decision to forgo the preliminary hearing, and he had also already rejected the State’s best plea offer.

¶19      Furthermore, even if we assume that the district court’s comments alone—rather than Hararah’s counterfactual claimed reliance on them—constituted error, Hararah has not met his burden on plain error review to show prejudice. The record shows that Hararah would have taken the same course of action whether or not the district court made the comments at issue. The same facts discussed above indicate that even if the statements had never been uttered, Hararah would have been presented with and rejected the State’s “best offer” and would have wanted to move as quickly as possible toward trial, including waiving his preliminary hearing. Accordingly, Hararah’s claim on this point fails.[4]

¶20      Moreover, even if “an error exist[ed]” that “should have been obvious to the [district] court,” Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13 (cleaned up), any such error was cured by Hararah’s conviction by a jury, see State v. Aleh, 2015 UT App 195, ¶¶ 13–18, 357 P.3d 12, cert. denied, 366 P.3d 1213 (Utah 2016). In Aleh, a defendant “contend[ed] that the trial court erred in denying his motion to withdraw the waiver of his right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 13. This court determined that because the “sole purpose” of a preliminary hearing is “determining whether probable cause exists,” “an error at the preliminary stage is cured if the defendant is later convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. ¶¶ 14–15 (cleaned up). And “[t]his is so even when the error consists of a complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 16.[5] “Because conviction beyond a reasonable doubt cures any flaw in a preliminary hearing—including the complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing—it necessarily cures any error the [district] court may have made in accepting a defendant’s waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 18.[6] “Accordingly, [Hararah’s] conviction of all charges beyond a reasonable doubt cured any possible error attending his waiver of a preliminary hearing.” See id.

¶21      Ultimately, Hararah’s argument of plain error fails.

  1. Exceptional Circumstances Doctrine

¶22      We apply the exceptional circumstances doctrine “to reach an unpreserved issue where a rare procedural anomaly has either prevented an appellant from preserving an issue or excuses a failure to do so.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up). Hararah argues that “[b]ecause it is procedurally uncommon in Utah to have a district court force a criminal defendant to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing, a rare procedural anomaly occurred.”

¶23      But the claimed procedural anomaly did not actually occur. Hararah’s argument points to the presumed effect of the district court’s statements (namely, “forc[ing]” Hararah “to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing”) rather than the mere occurrence of the statements as the “rare procedural anomaly.” But as we have explained, Hararah was not forced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing, because he chose to waive that right for reasons independent from the district court’s comments. The absence of an actual “rare procedural anomaly” alone defeats Hararah’s argument as to the applicability of the exceptional circumstances doctrine, but this is not all.

¶24     Even if we assume that the district court’s statements constituted a “rare procedural anomaly,” Hararah would need to show that they “either prevented [him] from preserving an issue or excuse[d] a failure to do so.” See id. Hararah does not attempt to explain what prevented him from objecting to the district court’s statements and thereby preserving the issue. In reality, there was nothing preventing him from doing so. Hararah could have objected when the district court made the first statement at the July 2020 hearing. But this is not a case where a defendant had only one opportunity to object to an alleged error. Hararah could have taken time to review the issue and objected during the August 2020 hearing. Or he could have objected after the district court’s follow-up comment at the September 2020 hearing. Furthermore, before trial, Hararah could have filed a motion to withdraw his waiver. On this record, Hararah had time and multiple opportunities to object or preserve this issue, and he did not do so.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that Hararah’s failure to preserve the issue is excusable. While we recognize the fundamental nature of the preliminary hearing and we protect defendants’ constitutional rights to preliminary hearings, we also recognize that a defendant has the constitutionally guaranteed right to waive the preliminary hearing. See Utah Const. art. I, § 13 (protecting the right to a preliminary hearing “unless the examination be waived by the accused with the consent of the State”); see also, e.g.Hafen v. State, 2011 UT App 85, ¶¶ 3–4, 249 P.3d 1006 (per curiam) (“[The defendant] filed his petition asserting that he was deprived of his preliminary hearing. . . . The petition was inconsistent with and [superseded] by [the defendant’s] waiver. [The defendant] was not deprived of any right to a preliminary hearing.” (cleaned up)). Waiving a preliminary hearing may have negative implications, but this reality does not invalidate a qualifying waiver. See State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 40, 317 P.3d 452 (“[The defendant] waived his right to a preliminary hearing, [forgoing] one opportunity to explore the exact nature of the charges against him and resolve any confusion about what those charges entailed.”). While Hararah may, in retrospect, have benefitted from taking the opportunity to develop the victim’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, this does not invalidate his waiver. And his regrets do not excuse his failure to preserve this issue. Therefore, the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶26 Hararah also asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the district court’s comments discussed above and by informing the jury in opening statements that it would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim.

¶27      “To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, [a defendant] must demonstrate that (1) [the defendant’s] counsel’s performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” State v. Streeper, 2022 UT App 147, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 710 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The first prong of this test “requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “[T]he defendant must show that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688.

¶28      The second prong “requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. “When a defendant challenges a conviction, the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695. “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [a defendant’s] claims under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶29      We can easily dismiss Hararah’s first assertion of ineffective assistance. As discussed above, Hararah did not provide any evidence that he intended to accept a plea deal and that he based his waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing on such a plan.[7] Counsel was aware of Hararah’s feelings toward the choice between pleading or going to trial and stated repeatedly that Hararah was not interested in pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain. Accordingly, Hararah has not persuaded us that any comments from the district court related to plea negotiations would have affected his plans at all, so Counsel acted reasonably in choosing not to object to such comments. In other words, the district court’s comments bore no impact on Hararah’s actions, so there was no tactical reason for Counsel to act as Hararah retroactively desires. “In evaluating trial counsel’s performance, we give trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Liti, 2015 UT App 186, ¶ 18, 355 P.3d 1078 (cleaned up). Here Counsel acted in line with Hararah’s clear desire to proceed toward trial.

¶30      Additionally, for the same reasons described above, we are convinced that Hararah was not prejudiced by this alleged deficiency in performance. Hararah asserts that “[t]here is a reasonable likelihood that if [he] had been allowed to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing,” his case would have ended differently. But Hararah was able to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing. We have already explained why the district court’s alleged carrot—permitting Hararah the possibility of accepting a plea deal—was no carrot at all based on his express refusal of the State’s “best offer” and his desire to proceed to trial. Hararah’s claim might have some foundation if he had proceeded with a preliminary hearing and the court had, in fact, restricted his ability to negotiate a plea deal or even if he had accepted a plea bargain after waiving the preliminary hearing. But given that he clearly and consistently conveyed his desire to go to trial, that he was offered the “best” plea deal and refused it, and that his conviction by a jury at trial was in no way influenced by the district court’s earlier comments on waiving the preliminary hearing, we are not persuaded that the outcome would have been any different if Counsel had objected. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. Therefore, Hararah cannot show ineffective assistance on this point.

¶31      Hararah’s second allegation of ineffective assistance is also unavailing. Hararah asserts that Counsel performed deficiently by saying in opening statements that the jury would “not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim],” when the victim went on to testify that Hararah had, in fact, hit her through a pillow. Hararah argues that Counsel should not have made such a promise without first “lock[ing] in” the victim’s testimony during a preliminary hearing. But, as discussed above, Hararah waived the preliminary hearing of his own free will. And it is clear that neither side was aware the victim would testify that Hararah hit her, because the deputy testified that he did not know of any assault other than Hararah throwing the plant. Accordingly, we do not fault Counsel for making a statement in line with all the known facts, and we conclude that Counsel’s actions are not nearly “so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687.

¶32      Furthermore, Hararah was not prejudiced by this allegedly deficient performance. Counsel was able to paint the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony. And Counsel elicited testimony from the State’s own witness that there were no allegations of punching prior to trial. Accordingly, Hararah was in a strong position to counter the State’s case, and the jury still found him guilty of assault. From this, we see no support for “a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695.

CONCLUSION

¶33       Hararah’s claim that the district court coerced him into waiving his preliminary hearing is not supported by the record, so the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply and the court also did not plainly err. Additionally, Hararah’s assertion of ineffective assistance of counsel fails. Therefore, we affirm Hararah’s conviction.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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In Re K.T. 2023 UT App 5 – Substantiation of Child Abuse

2023 UT App 5

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.T.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

J.K., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210553-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1190244

Gregory W. Stevens, Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Appellant J.K. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating several database findings of abuse entered by the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2      In August 2020, the State filed with the juvenile court a Verified Petition for Protective Supervision requesting the court to find Mother’s son, K.T., “abused, neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS.” The petition alleged that DCFS had on three separate occasions previously supported findings of abuse of K.T. against Mother.[1] In addition to the request for protective supervision of K.T., the petition requested that the juvenile court enter an order “[s]ubstantiating[2] the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-323,” now recodified at Utah Code section 80-3-404.[3]

¶3 In March 2021, following discussions with Mother, the State filed with the juvenile court an Amended Verified Petition for Protective Supervision. The amended petition again asked the court to find K.T. “neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS,” but it eliminated the prior request that the court find K.T. to be “abused.” The amended petition repeated the original petition’s request that the court enter a finding “[s]ubstantiating the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code” section 80-3-404.

¶4 The parties thereafter appeared before the juvenile court to adjudicate the amended petition. At the outset of the hearing, the State indicated it had reached an agreement with Mother to submit the amended petition “for [a] finding of neglect” and requested, without objection, that “the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings” be “set over.” Thereafter, Mother admitted many of the allegations of the amended petition. But pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, she declined to either admit or deny the allegations that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse by Mother against K.T.[4] The parties then presented argument. The State argued for a finding of neglect, while Mother argued for a finding of dependency. After the hearing, the court entered a finding of neglect[5] and granted “[p]rotective supervision of [K.T.] . . . to DCFS.”[6] The court “reserve[d] the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings for the next hearing.”

¶5 In June 2021, the case came before the juvenile court for a disposition hearing, during which the State requested that the court address the substantiation issue. The court entertained argument and took the matter under advisement. It thereafter entered a written order substantiating the three DCFS supported findings of abuse by Mother contained in both the original and amended petitions. Specifically, it substantiated the supported findings that K.T. had suffered emotional abuse, physical abuse, and chronic emotional abuse.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶6 Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating the DCFS supported findings of abuse and raises three issues for our review. The first two issues present questions as to the statutory authority of the juvenile court. Mother first argues the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority to substantiate the DCFS findings of abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated only a finding of neglect. “Questions of jurisdiction and statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review for correctness, giving no particular deference to lower court decisions.” In re B.B.G., 2007 UT App 149, ¶ 4, 160 P.3d 9.

¶7 In a similar vein, Mother next argues the State and the juvenile court were bound by the stipulation of the parties to submit the amended petition only for “a finding of neglect.” When “the facts [are] stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re B.T., 2009 UT App 182, ¶ 5, 214 P.3d 881 (quotation simplified).

¶8 Lastly, Mother alternatively argues her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its legal adjudication of neglect and later substantiate for abuse. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” State v. Clark, 2004 UT 25, ¶ 6, 89 P.3d 162.

ANALYSIS

I.

¶9 We turn first to Mother’s argument that the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority in substantiating the DCFS findings for abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated K.T. as neglected. We are unpersuaded by this argument because it conflates the State’s request that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected with its independent request that the court substantiate the DCFS supported findings of abuse. The State’s request to adjudicate K.T. as neglected so as to bring the child within the jurisdiction of the court and under the protective supervision of DCFS was separate from its request that the court substantiate DCFS’s finding that K.T. had suffered a severe type of child abuse. As explained below, the juvenile court had independent statutory authority to adjudicate both issues.

¶10 In Utah, proceedings concerning abuse, neglect, and dependency are governed by Chapter 3 of the Utah Juvenile Code (the UJC). Pursuant to Chapter 3, “any interested person may file an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition” in the juvenile court. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-201(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Among other things, the petition must include “a concise statement of facts, separately stated, to support the conclusion that the child upon whose behalf the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition is brought is abused, neglected, or dependent.” Id. § 80-3-201(4)(a). After the petition is filed, the court may, upon making specific findings, “order that the child be removed from the child’s home or otherwise taken into protective custody.” Id. § 80-3-204(2). If the court so orders, a shelter hearing must then be held to determine whether continued removal and placement of the child in DCFS’s temporary custody are necessary. See id. § 80-3-301.

¶11 After the shelter hearing, the juvenile court conducts an adjudication hearing. See id. § 80-3-401. An adjudication is a determination of the merits of the State’s petition of abuse, neglect, or dependency. “If, at the adjudication hearing, the juvenile court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true, the juvenile court shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Id. § 80-3-402(1); see also In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 14, 67 P.3d 1037 (“In child welfare proceedings, if the petition’s allegations of neglect, abuse, or dependency are found to be true in the adjudication hearing, those findings provide the basis for determining the consequences in the disposition hearing.”). “The dispositional hearing may be held on the same date as the adjudication hearing . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-402(2). Dispositions available after adjudication include, among other things, vesting custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in DCFS or any other appropriate person. Id. § 80-3405(2)(a)(i). Thus, an adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency brings the child and family within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

¶12 A separate chapter of the UJC addresses child welfare services. Chapter 2 creates DCFS and establishes its statutory authority and responsibilities. Among these is its responsibility to investigate reports that a child is abused, neglected, or dependent and to enter findings at the conclusion of its investigations. See id. § 80-2-701. A “supported” finding by DCFS is based on evidence available at the completion of an investigation indicating that “there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89). Chapter 2 requires that DCFS notify alleged perpetrators of supported findings and establishes a procedure for challenging such findings. Id. §§ 80-2707, -708. In cases involving a supported finding of a severe type of child abuse, the statute also gives DCFS authority to file a petition in the juvenile court seeking substantiation of a supported finding. Id. § 80-2-708(1)(c).

¶13 Part 10 of Chapter 2 governs DCFS’s record-keeping responsibilities. DCFS uses a database known as the Management Information System to track child welfare and protective services cases. See id. § 80-2-1001(3), (4). DCFS uses a subset of that system known as the Licensing Information System (the LIS) to track cases for licensing purposes. See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). In cases involving a severe type of child abuse or neglect, DCFS enters supported findings into the LIS and the alleged perpetrator thereafter “may be disqualified from adopting a child, receiving state funds as a child care provider, or being licensed by DCFS, a human services program, a child care provider or program, or a covered health care facility.” State v. A.C., 2022 UT App 121, ¶ 3, 521 P.3d 186 (quotation simplified).

¶14 All these statutes were in play in these proceedings. On three separate occasions prior to the State’s filing of the petition, DCFS had investigated Mother for abuse of K.T. Following each of its three investigations, DCFS had supported a finding of abuse of K.T. against Mother. One of those supported findings was of “chronic emotional abuse” of K.T., which falls within the statutory definition of a “severe type of child abuse” under Utah Code section 80-1-102(78)(a)(i)(A) that then must be entered into the LIS.

¶15 The amended petition removed the request that the juvenile court adjudicate K.T. as abused. Instead, it requested that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected. But the amended petition also recited DCFS’s history with K.T., stating that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse against Mother, and requested that the court substantiate these supported findings of abuse. Adjudicating both requests for relief fell squarely within the juvenile court’s express statutory authority. Indeed, Mother identifies no statutory provision limiting the court’s authority to substantiate DCFS findings of abuse based on the outcome of the State’s independent request to adjudicate the status of an allegedly abused, neglected, or dependent child.

¶16 Mother’s argument that the juvenile court’s substantiation decision must be consistent with its adjudication decision in a related petition for abuse, neglect, or dependency is also inconsistent with the burdens of proof dictated by the UJC. While the juvenile court may adjudicate a minor as abused, neglected, or dependent based only on clear and convincing evidence, it can substantiate a DCFS finding based on a mere preponderance of the evidence. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(87), with id. § 80-3-402(1). These different standards give rise to the distinct possibility that a juvenile court could decline to adjudicate a minor as abused, while still substantiating a DCFS finding of abuse based on the lower burden of proof.

¶17 Despite the absence of a statutory provision linking the outcome of the amended petition to the outcome of a request for substantiation, Mother argues the juvenile court’s ruling on the neglect petition ended the court proceedings, “leaving no question open for further judicial action.” (Quoting In re M.W., 2000 UT 79, ¶ 25, 12 P.3d 80.) But this argument is directly contrary to the statutory language. Utah Code section 80-3-404 addresses the responsibility of the juvenile court to adjudicate DCFS supported findings of severe child abuse or neglect and their inclusion in or removal from the LIS. Upon the filing of “an abuse, neglect or dependency petition . . . that informs the juvenile court that [DCFS] has made a supported finding that an individual committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect, the juvenile court shall . . . make a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit” and include the finding in a written order. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-404(1) (emphasis added). This provision also allows joinder of proceedings for adjudication of supported findings of severe abuse or neglect with those that do not constitute severe abuse. Id. § 80-3-404(3). And it does not limit the juvenile court’s ability to substantiate findings of severe abuse to those cases in which the court has granted a petition to adjudicate a child as abused. In short, the juvenile court was required to rule on the State’s substantiation request.[7]

II.

¶18 Next, Mother argues the State and juvenile court were bound by the facts and legal conclusions contained in the amended petition to which the parties had stipulated. Mother reasons that because the parties had stipulated to a finding of neglect, the juvenile court could not substantiate DCFS’s supported findings of abuse.

¶19 Mother’s argument is inconsistent with both the language of the amended petition and the course of the proceedings before the juvenile court. At the hearing on the amended petition, the State informed the court that the State and Mother had agreed to submit the matter to the court for a “finding of neglect” and that they “would ask also the Court to reserve the issue of substantiating the DCFS supporting findings at this point in time and set that over for disposition.” In connection therewith, Mother agreed to admit the allegations of the amended petition except those in paragraphs 5 and 6. Paragraph 5 alleged DCFS’s history with the family, including DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Paragraph 6 alleged additional facts supporting the conclusion that K.T. was neglected or dependent.

¶20 Although Mother declined to admit the allegations of paragraphs 5 and 6, she did not deny them. Instead, she proceeded pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure by neither admitting nor denying them. But as the juvenile court expressly informed Mother at the hearing, Mother’s decision not to deny those allegations had legal significance since “[a]llegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). The court was therefore free to base its decision on all the allegations of the amended petition, including those in paragraph 6 regarding DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Because the parties’ stipulation was not inconsistent with the court’s ruling, it did not err.

III.

¶21 Lastly, we turn to Mother’s argument that her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its adjudication of neglect and substantiate DCFS’s findings of abuse for entry into the LIS. To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that counsel’s performance was deficient and that this deficient performance prejudiced her defense. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184. A reviewing court must “indulge in a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, and that under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” State v. J.A.L., 2011 UT 27, ¶ 25, 262 P.3d 1 (quotation simplified).

¶22 After indulging these presumptions, we are unable to conclude that counsel’s performance was deficient because there are many sound reasons why Mother’s decision to settle the petition with a finding of neglect, while allowing the juvenile court to resolve the substantiation issue, was sound strategy. The petition sought a finding that K.T. had been abused, and it was possible, if not likely, that proceeding to trial on the original petition could have resulted in both an adjudication of abuse and a substantiation of the abuse claims against Mother. The fact that Mother now regrets her decision to settle does not lead to the conclusion that counsel performed deficiently. Mother appeared before the juvenile court, and the court explained her rights and questioned her about the voluntariness of her decision. Nothing in the record suggests that Mother’s decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel.

CONCLUSION

¶23 The juvenile court acted well within its statutory authority in substantiating DCFS’s findings of child abuse, and the court was entitled to consider all the allegations of the amended petition when determining whether to substantiate that finding. Mother has not demonstrated how her decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. Accordingly, we affirm.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as “nonaccidental harm of a child” or “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-1102(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). “‘Supported’ means a finding by [DCFS] based on the evidence available at the completion of an investigation, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified during the investigation, that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89).

[2] “‘Substantiated’ or ‘substantiation’ means a judicial finding based on a preponderance of the evidence, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified in the case, that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(87).

[3] The statutory provisions of Title 78A of the Utah Code that were in effect at the time of the juvenile court proceedings have since been renumbered and recodified as part of the Utah Juvenile Code, which is now found in Title 80 of the Utah Code. Because the provisions relevant to our analysis have not been substantively amended, we cite the recodified version for convenience.

[4] Under rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “[a] respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e).

Here, the juvenile court took great care to ensure that Mother understood the consequences of not denying these allegations. The court informed Mother that it was “going to find [the allegations] to be true, even though [she was] not admitting nor denying [them].” When Mother indicated she did not understand, the court took a break to allow Mother to confer with her counsel. Following the break, the court confirmed that Mother had ample opportunity to discuss the issue with counsel and understood what was happening with respect to the allegations at issue.

[5] Although the juvenile court entered a finding of neglect pursuant to the stipulation of the parties, it indicated the evidence was also sufficient to support a finding of abuse.

[6] Even though the court placed K.T. under the protective supervision of DCFS, K.T. remained in his father’s custody.

[7] Mother also argues the juvenile court erred by not ruling on the State’s substantiation request at the time it adjudicated the petition for neglect. But Mother did not preserve this argument below. When the State raised the substantiation request at the adjudication hearing and asked that it be continued to a later hearing, Mother did not object.

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In re A.H. – 2021 UT App 57, Ineffective Assistance, Reasonable Efforts

ttps://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/appopin/In%20re%20A.H…20210528_20190846_57.pdf 

In re A.H. – 2021 UT App 57 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

STATE OF UTAHIN THE INTEREST OF A.H. AND N.H., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. 

K.H., Appellant, 
v
STATE OF UTAH, Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20190846-CA 

Filed May 28, 2021 

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Mark W. May 

No. 1148287 

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant 

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee 

Martha Pierce and Dixie Jackson, Guardians ad Litem 

JUDGE JILL M. POHLMAN authored this Opinion, in which 
JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and DIANA HAGEN concurred. 

POHLMAN, Judge: 

¶1 K.H. (Father) appeals the juvenile court’s termination of his parental rights as to A.H. and N.H., raising three arguments. First, Father contends that he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. Second, he contends that the juvenile court erred in finding that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) provided reasonable efforts toward reunification. Third, he contends that the juvenile court’s reasoning and reliance on the ground of unfitness in terminating his rights was flawed. We affirm. 

BACKGROUND1  

¶2 Father and R.R. (Mother) have three young children together: four-year-old A.H., two-year-old N.H., and an infant, Am.H., who was born during the course of these proceedings. This appeal concerns only Father’s parental rights as to the older children, A.H. and N.H. (collectively, the Children). Mother’s parental rights are not at issue in this appeal, and we mention her only when relevant and necessary for context. 

The Initial Verified Child Welfare Petition 

¶3 Father and Mother’s relationship was “off and on, volatile and abusive.” After reports of drug use in the home and an incident of domestic violence in August 2017, the Children were taken into protective custody and placed with foster parents. Soon afterward, the juvenile court ordered Mother and Father not to have contact with each other. In October 2017, the court held Father’s adjudication hearing and disposition hearing on the same day. The court concluded that Father neglected the Children, that they should remain in the custody of DCFS, and that the primary goal for the Children was reunification with their parents with a secondary goal of adoption. 

¶4 After this hearing, the court also entered findings of fact, including findings about the August 2017 domestic violence incident. Specifically, the court found that Father arrived at the home to find Mother doing drugs. Mother then pulled a knife on Father, and Father twisted her arm to get the knife away before leaving. The Children were present during the incident and were frightened.2 

¶5 At the disposition hearing, the juvenile court also addressed the reunification service plan with regard to Father. At that time, a separate plan had not yet been created for Father, but it was explained to him that the requirements of Mother’s plan also applied to him. Father confirmed that he had “gone over all the requirements of the service plan,” and the court found that Father understood them. 

The Period of Reunification Services 

¶6 Beginning in October 2017, a separate service plan created just for Father required, among other things, Father to submit to random drug testing, complete a substance abuse evaluation and a domestic violence assessment, complete a parenting class, participate in weekly supervised visitation with the Children, provide financially for the Children, and maintain a stable and healthy living environment for them. By the December 2017 review hearing, Father had completed the domestic violence assessment but had not called in to drug test. At the next review hearing in February 2018—six months after the Children were removed—Father had attended domestic violence treatment, but he had failed to take all the requested drug tests, had tested positive for THC3 on some drug tests, and had not attended drug treatment. Although at both hearings DCFS and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asked to schedule a permanency hearing based on Father’s and Mother’s failure to fully engage in services, the juvenile court denied those requests. 

¶7 By the final review hearing in May 2018—nine months after removal—Father was taking domestic violence classes and had been more consistent in calling in to determine whether he should submit to a drug test. But he was still missing some calls and tests and was still testing positive for THC. Additionally, Father had been verbally aggressive with a DCFS caseworker after a visit had to be canceled because he arrived too late. As a result, the court ordered Father to participate in anger management classes. 

¶8 The court held a permanency hearing in August 2018— twelve months after removal. At this point, Mother was making progress and had the Children in a trial home placement. For his part, Father was also doing well, and he had begun attending drug and alcohol treatment, domestic violence treatment, and anger management classes. By the parties’ agreement, the court found that there had been substantial compliance with the treatment plan, reunification was likely within ninety days, and continued services were in the Children’s best interests. Thus, the court extended reunification services for another three months. 

¶9 In November 2018—fifteen months after removal—the juvenile court held a second permanency hearing, during which it considered the GAL’s motion to terminate the trial home placement and reunification services. Things had “not gone well” for Mother; she had a positive drug test, missed taking the Children to doctor appointments, and had been kicked out of her in-patient treatment center. Father had “done better”; he had completed his substance abuse treatment and was close to finishing his domestic violence classes. But he had missed call-ins for his drug tests until mid-September 2018 and had not completed a psychological exam. Although DCFS discussed placing the Children with Father, he was “decidedly non-committal” and refused to allow DCFS to inspect his home. When asked who would watch the Children while he worked, he answered, “I’ve never thought about it, I don’t know.” And although he was asked in October 2018 to create a plan for how he would handle daycare, work, and medical appointments, he still had not submitted a plan before the second permanency hearing. The Children were returned to foster care, while DCFS, Mother, and Father asked for reunification services to be extended again. But the juvenile court found that even though there had been “substantial progress by both parents, there was not clear and convincing evidence that reunification was probable within 90 days.” Accordingly, the court terminated reunification services and changed the Children’s permanency goal to adoption. 

¶10 Shortly afterward, Mother and Father’s newborn, Am.H., was placed in DCFS custody in a separate child welfare case. Even though reunification services were terminated with respect to A.H. and N.H., nearly the same services were ordered and in place for Am.H.’s case. 

The Petition to Terminate Parental Rights and the Termination Trial 

¶11 DCFS petitioned to terminate Mother’s and Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. Father then changed attorneys, and Father’s new counsel represented him during the ten-day trial before the juvenile court. 

¶12 To his credit, Father continued to improve and “largely rehabilitated himself” in the time between the second permanency hearing and trial. Nevertheless, the juvenile court found that Father’s “lackadaisical approach to services and the length of time that it took him to achieve substantial rehabilitation [had a] destructive effect [on] his parent/child relationship,” and the court ultimately terminated Father’s parental rights as to the Children. 

¶13 After trial, the juvenile court issued a seventy-nine-page written decision and made extensive findings regarding Father’s efforts and reunification services. Regarding drug testing, the court found that Father tested positive ten times for THC, repeatedly failed to call in to determine if he should test, and provided excuses about his failures to call in that were not credible. Even when the caseworker and the court “constantly reminded” him to submit to drug tests, Father “purposely refused.” Instead, Father decided “to test only when he wanted,” which effectively “deprived the Court of the ability to determine if he was using drugs other than marijuana” because, in the court’s experience, sophisticated drug users know how to time drug tests so that the tests “only reveal[] marijuana use but not other substances.” The court found that Father’s first clean drug test was nine months after the Children’s removal and that Father did not consistently call in to be tested until mid-September 2018. Thus, by the second permanency hearing, Father had complied with this aspect of the service plan for only two months. The court noted, however, that he had been clean since services were terminated. As for the required substance abuse evaluation, the court found that Father completed that portion of the service plan. 

¶14 Father had mixed results on other requirements in the service plan. He had not finished the domestic violence assessment before the second permanency hearing but did finish before trial. Regarding the anger management classes, Father completed that requirement of the service plan, yet he “continue[d] to have outbursts after he completed treatment.” Concerning the psychological evaluation, Father had not completed it before the second permanency hearing.4 Father managed to do so before trial, but it was unknown whether Father had participated in the recommended therapy. 

¶15 As for the required parenting class, Father completed it, but “it did not have the desired effect.” He was “not able to sufficiently improve his parenting abilities in relation to” A.H. and N.H., and he was not in compliance with this requirement by the second permanency hearing in November 2018. 

¶16 One month earlier, in October 2018, Father began Parent Child Connections Interactive Therapy (PCCIT), which is designed to “support the development of healthier child-parent interactions and improve attachment patterns overall.” During PCCIT, Father acknowledged that he “felt like he did not have a lot of skills to handle [A.H.],” who has disabilities. A PCCIT therapist also observed that Father “did not have a close relationship with [N.H.].” Overall, Father attended five PCCIT sessions. A PCCIT therapist observed that N.H. showed “fear and hesitation towards” Father and that although in later sessions N.H. started going to Father earlier in the session, “her reunions with [Father] still highlight[ed] significant anxiety.” The therapist also observed that Father “had to work to set limits with [A.H.] and often tends to just give [A.H.] what he wants and allows him to be aggressive” but that Father had improved in the last two sessions. The PCCIT sessions stopped in November 2018 because the court ended reunification services and changed the Children’s goal to adoption. Even though Father wanted to continue PCCIT and pay for it himself, the court denied that request because it was inconsistent with the goal of adoption. And although PCCIT could have been started earlier, a PCCIT therapist testified at trial that even if Father “had been given the full amount of time to complete PCCIT[,] she did not think therapy would have been successful because [Father] made minimal progress in the time he had.” 

¶17 With one exception, Father regularly attended his weekly supervised visits with the Children. The visits were “troubling,” however, because Father persisted in bringing toys and food even when asked not to do so. The toys and food interfered with creating a “normal” setting for the evaluators to observe the parent/child interaction and led the Children to view Father “as a party dad or a type of Santa—one who comes with toys and gifts.” While Father complied with the requirement to attend visits, he showed a “lack of progress” and never “progressed to unsupervised visits.” 

¶18 In terms of the requirement to provide financially for the Children, the court found that Father had “paid nothing in child support” since the court became involved in the matter and that he owed a total of $11,841.75 in back payments. At the same time, Father testified that he had $7,000 in savings and owned his mortgaged home. The court further found that Father works three jobs and had the ability to pay child support. Father told the court that he would pay child support if the Children were returned to him, but the court found that this statement showed that Father “fundamentally misunderstands the concept of child support.” Because Father “has purposely avoided his obligation,” the court found that Father did not comply with this portion of the service plan “at any time.” 

¶19 As for Father’s housing situation, the court found that at the time of the second permanency hearing, Father “did not have a stable and healthy living environment for his Children.” Multiple times, Father “purposely refused” to allow DCFS to inspect his home until after services were terminated. By the end of December 2018, however, his home was deemed suitable for children. 

¶20 At trial, Father testified that he contacted the Office of Child Protection Ombudsman (the Ombudsman) in December 2018 to express concerns over how DCFS had handled his case. The Ombudsman issued a letter in which it “largely validated [Father’s] concerns,” and in his defense, Father presented the Ombudsman’s opinion to support his position that DCFS did not provide reasonable services to him. But the court found that the Ombudsman did not speak with Father’s caseworkers and supervisors and did not review all the relevant documentation. The court thus had “serious concerns about the quality of the investigation done by [the Ombudsman].” In written detail, the court discredited much of the Ombudsman’s opinion, finding instead that DCFS provided adequate support to Father. 

¶21 Notably, in rejecting the Ombudsman’s opinion, the court found that Father “did not take reunification services seriously for nearly a year.” According to the court, Father “knew what was expected” of him, yet he “showed little interest in reunification until he realized too late that [Mother] was not going to have the [C]hildren returned to her.” Indeed, “[c]ajoling by the caseworker at visits and by the Court at review hearings appeared to have little effect.” And even when DCFS “made a push to return” the Children to Father in the fall of 2018, Father “showed little interest” in reunification. The court further found that “[b]y his own fault, not [DCFS’s], [Father] chose to rely on [Mother] to get the [C]hildren back,” and thus he “just took a lackadaisical approach to completing services on time” and “did not seriously engage in services in a timely fashion.” Ultimately, the court found that DCFS “made a fair and honest attempt to provide services to [Father] and the services provided to [Father] were reasonable.” 

¶22 The juvenile court recognized that while Father had “limited general parenting skills with young children,” he was “doing better”; he had “a steady job, an appropriate home and is drug free.” In fact, by the end of trial, Father had the infant, Am.H., in a trial home placement. The court saw that Father was “developing further skills at managing and appropriately responding to his children.” Yet the court observed that “providing daily care of three young children would be a significant challenge,” especially considering A.H.’s disabilities. When Father was given special training on how to deal with A.H., he “did not seem to learn or progress in his understanding.” The Children did not have an attachment to Father, and even though Father had some positive interactions with the Children, those interactions were “more about drinking, eating, and playing with toys,” not “a need by the children for affection or connection (physical or emotional) with” Father. 

¶23 Significantly, with respect to N.H., the court found that during the time it took Father to improve himself, “the parent-child relationship was severely damaged.” N.H. was never in Father’s custody before she was removed, and thus “no parent/child relationship ever existed” between them. Further, the court found that no relationship between Father and N.H. “developed over the course of the case” and that N.H. “has never viewed [Father] as a caregiver or parent and she is apprehensive in his presence.” The court concluded that Father’s present parenting ability did not help him with regard to N.H. and his “lackadaisical approach to services deprived him of the opportunity to form a meaningful parent/child bond” with N.H. 

¶24 With respect to A.H., the court found that while Father and A.H. had a parent/child relationship before A.H.’s removal, “that relationship has drastically changed” in the two years since then. For example, A.H. was excited to see Father at visits but his excitement was “more about drinking, eating, and playing,” and when the visits ended, A.H. did not initiate hugs with Father or whine for Father not to leave. Instead, A.H. would run to his foster parents. The court found that A.H.’s relationship with his foster parents “has transformed into the only meaningful attachment relationship that he has” and that removing A.H. from them would present “a danger of [A.H.] suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder.” The court concluded that the duration of A.H.’s removal and the length of time that “it took [Father] to substantially rehabilitate himself had a significant destructive effect on their parent/child relationship”; thus, Father’s “present parenting ability [did] not overcome the destructive effects of his past actions/inactions.” 

¶25 Additionally, the court made findings about Mother and Father’s relationship, which it viewed as “concerning” and “troubling.” The court found that Mother and Father “largely ignored” the court’s no-contact order, and Father stated in April 2019 that they were living together. It also noted that while Mother and Father tried at trial “to downplay the amount of domestic violence that had occurred between them,” they were “quite upfront” in evaluations “about the significant role domestic violence had played in their relationship.” It further found that Father “has problems setting boundaries with [Mother],” that he had “chosen to remain” with Mother, and that “[a]s a couple they cannot properly raise [the Children].” The court noted that it had returned custody of Am.H. to Father, not Mother, and that if Father “reunites” with Mother, Am.H.’s “custody situation could change.” 

¶26 In conclusion, the juvenile court found five grounds for terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(b)–(f) (LexisNexis 2018).5 The court also found that terminating Father’s parental rights was in the Children’s best interests. See id. § 78A-6-503(12). It added that termination “would also prevent the substantial likelihood of continued neglect if the [C]hildren were returned to the parents.” It also found that the Children “view the foster parents as their caretakers and providers,” not Father and Mother, and that the foster parents are “ready and willing to adopt” the Children. Furthermore, the court found that terminating Father’s parental rights was “strictly necessary” and in the Children’s best interests so that their foster parents could adopt them. See id. § 78A-6-507(1). 

¶27 Accordingly, the juvenile court entered an order terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H.6 Father appeals. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶28 Now represented by different counsel on appeal, Father raises three main issues. First, Father asserts that his trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance in various ways. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re S.S., 2015 UT App 230, ¶ 20, 360 P.3d 16 (cleaned up). 

¶29 Second, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in finding that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunification. “A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 15, 461 P.3d 1116 (cleaned up). 

¶30 Third, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in terminating his parental rights on the ground of unfitness. “The ultimate conclusion that a parent is unfit or that other grounds for termination have been established is a legal question, but such decisions rely heavily on the juvenile court’s assessment and weighing of the facts in any given case.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 22, 463 P.3d 66 (cleaned up). We thus “afford a high degree of deference to a juvenile court’s decision with regard to the existence of statutory grounds, and overturn it only when the result is against the clear weight of the evidence or leaves us with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (cleaned up). Further, “when a foundation for the juvenile court’s decision exists in the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” Id. (cleaned up). 

ANALYSIS 

¶31 To terminate parental rights, the juvenile court must make two separate findings by clear and convincing evidence. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-506(3) (LexisNexis 2018); In re C.Z., 2021 UT App 28, ¶¶ 17–18, 484 P.3d 431. “First, it must find grounds for termination under Utah Code section 78A-6-507.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46 (cleaned up). Clear and convincing evidence establishing “any one” of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination is sufficient to fulfill the first finding for termination. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018); see also In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66; In re F.C. III, 2003 UT App 397, ¶ 6, 81 P.3d 790. Second, the court “must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(12) (LexisNexis 2018). As part of the best-interests inquiry, “a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 76; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1). Additionally, when “the court has directed [DCFS] to provide reunification services to a parent, the court must find that [DCFS] made reasonable efforts to provide those services before the court may terminate the parent’s rights.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(3)(a). 

¶32 The juvenile court in this case found five separate grounds to terminate Father’s parental rights: (1) “the parent has neglected . . . the child,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(b); (2) “the parent is unfit or incompetent,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(c); (3) “the child is being cared for in an out-of-home placement under the supervision of the court or [DCFS] . . . [and] the parent has substantially neglected, wilfully refused, or has been unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that cause the child to be in an out-of-home placement; and . . . there is a substantial likelihood that the parent will not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care in the near future,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(d); (4) “failure of parental adjustment,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(e), which means that the parent has been “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of their child outside of their home, notwithstanding reasonable and appropriate efforts made by [DCFS] to return the child to that home,” id. § 78A-6-502(2); and (5) “only token efforts have been made by the parent . . . to support . . . the child,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(f). The juvenile court also found that terminating Father’s parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interests. Father does not challenge the court’s decision regarding the Children’s best interests. 

¶33 We now turn to Father’s arguments regarding ineffective assistance of counsel, reasonable efforts at reunification, and grounds for termination. 

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶34 Father first contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in four respects. First, he argues that trial counsel misunderstood that the initial adjudication was not being relitigated at trial and thus employed a flawed trial strategy aimed at the domestic violence incident underlying the initial adjudication. See supra ¶¶ 3–4. Second, Father argues that trial counsel “devoted a significant portion of the trial” urging the juvenile court to rely on the Ombudsman’s opinion, which was ultimately discredited. Third, Father argues that trial counsel misunderstood or was unaware of the applicable law, process, and court rules, including the burden of proof, and he further claims that trial counsel erroneously believed proving a justification for the domestic violence incident would mitigate the harm to the Children. Fourth, Father argues that trial counsel introduced or emphasized harmful evidence, including that Father had $7,000 in savings and had paid his own attorney fees and that Father had physically disciplined his older child several years earlier. 

¶35 “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, [Father] must show that (1) ‘counsel’s performance was deficient’ and (2) this ‘deficient performance prejudiced the defense.’” See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)); see also In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that parents are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in child welfare proceedings and adopting “the Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings involving termination of parental rights”). “Because failure to establish either prong of the [Strickland] test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Father’s] claims under either prong.” See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19 (cleaned up). 

¶36 Father has identified some questionable decisions on trial counsel’s part. But even if trial counsel did perform deficiently, we resolve Father’s ineffective assistance claims on the prejudice prong. 

¶37 To establish prejudice, Father “must ‘demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of [his] case would have been different absent counsel’s error. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.’” See id. ¶ 21 (quoting State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 43, 462 P.3d 350). In evaluating the likelihood of a different result, we “consider the totality of the evidence before the judge,” bearing in mind that “[s]ome errors will have had a pervasive effect on the inferences to be drawn from the evidence, altering the entire evidentiary picture, and some will have had an isolated, trivial effect.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695–96. 

¶38 Father has not carried his burden of demonstrating prejudice. “To establish ineffective assistance of counsel in parental rights termination proceedings, it is imperative that a parent demonstrate deficient performance and prejudice for each ground justifying termination.” In re B.H., 2003 UT App 160U, para. 4. Thus, because the juvenile court found five statutory grounds warranting the termination of Father’s parental rights, Father must explain why the court’s finding on each ground likely would have been different but for trial counsel’s alleged deficient performance. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that the court may terminate parental rights upon finding “any one” ground for termination). He has not even attempted to do so. 

¶39 Instead, Father generally asserts that trial counsel’s tactics “detracted from the fact that [Father] had done everything necessary to cure the domestic violence situation found in the initial adjudication” and that trial counsel “set the stage” for the court to believe Father “doesn’t get it,” because the defense cast blame on Mother for the domestic violence incident. (Cleaned up.) But the juvenile court acknowledged that Father “spent a lot of time presenting evidence” of his continued work on services up to the time of trial, and the court gave Father credit for his progress, finding that he had “largely rehabilitated himself” by the time of trial. And apart from trial counsel’s arguments, the court had other evidence that Father did not progress in important ways. For example, the court found “the initial parenting class was not successful, even according to [Father],” and Father’s visits with the Children never progressed to unsupervised visits. What’s more, the court found that Father did not seriously engage in services in a timely manner. Father’s delay was especially problematic in this case because it had a significant destructive effect on his parent-child relationship with A.H. and prevented him from developing any parent-child relationship with N.H. 

¶40 Referring to the approximately twelve-month timeframe after a child’s removal during which a parent must show progress in changing the conduct or condition that required the removal, the court explained the importance of “removing the child from the legal limbo of State custody as soon as possible so as to provide that child with a permanent and stable home.” (Quoting In re M.L., 965 P.2d 551, 560 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).) The court further recognized the connection between “a parent’s inaction over a long period of time” and “the deterioration of the parent-child relationship during that time period.” (Quoting In re M.L., 965 P.2d at 560.) The court’s approach was consistent with Utah caselaw, which directs that “the weight which a juvenile court must give any present ability evidence is necessarily dependent on the amount of time during which the parent displayed an unwillingness or inability to improve his or her conduct and on any destructive effect the parent’s past conduct or the parent’s delay in rectifying the conduct has had on the parent’s ability to resume a parent-child relationship with the child.” See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435 (cleaned up). In this case, even if trial counsel had done more to emphasize Father’s rehabilitation or less to emphasize Father’s rationalization of the domestic violence incident, it is unlikely that the juvenile court would have changed its view regarding the destruction of the parent-child relationships. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(e); In re M.L., 965 P.2d at 561–62 (instructing that in considering a failure of parental adjustment, the court must weigh a parent’s present ability evidence “in light of the parent’s past conduct and its debilitating effect on the parent-child relationship”). 

¶41 Father also suggests that his trial counsel’s performance was prejudicial because trial counsel elicited testimony about Father’s financial condition and Father’s earlier physical discipline of another child that “then served as grounds for termination.” But even without the testimony elicited by Father’s counsel about Father’s finances, the State introduced evidence that Father was employed yet had paid no child support since the time the Children were taken into DCFS custody. Thus, Father’s testimony may not have been helpful, but Father has not shown that without it the court was reasonably likely to find that Father had made more than token efforts to financially support the Children. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(f).7 As to Father’s physical discipline of another child, the court made a finding that this incident had occurred seven years earlier. But this finding does not appear to have played a significant role in the court’s decisions regarding the grounds for termination. The court did not mention it again and instead repeatedly emphasized the destructive effect Father’s neglect and inaction had on the Children. Given the totality of the circumstances, it is not reasonably likely that the court would have viewed Father and his relationship with the Children any differently had counsel not introduced these two pieces of evidence. 

¶42 Additionally, our own review of the record indicates that Father was not prejudiced by his trial counsel’s performance. The court understood and analyzed the facts, most of which are unchallenged on appeal. In a detailed written decision, the court carefully applied the correct law and was not misled by any confusion that trial counsel may have had. Despite Father’s strides, the court still had numerous concerns about Father, and its decision to terminate Father’s parental rights was driven largely by Father’s own untimely efforts to engage in services. 

¶43 Indeed, termination for failure of parental adjustment is well supported in the evidence. Citing Utah Code section 78A-6-507(1)(e), the court found that Father was “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct or conditions that led to the placement of [the Children] outside of” his home. Although DCFS provided reasonable and appropriate reunification services to Father, Father did not take the various services seriously for almost a year. See infra ¶¶ 46–49. For example, Father did not comply with the drug-testing requirement for more than eleven months—around two months before the second permanency hearing. He also “purposely refused” multiple times to allow DCFS to inspect his home until after services were terminated. And even when DCFS “made a push to return” the Children to Father, he “showed little interest” in the attempts to reunify. Cf. In re C.Z., 2021 UT App 28, ¶ 24 (affirming the juvenile court’s conclusion that “the father’s efforts were far too little far too late” (cleaned up)). Importantly, Father’s delay caused damage to his parent-child relationships with both of the Children. 

¶44 Furthermore, Father largely ignored the court’s no-contact order with Mother, and he had “chosen to remain” in a volatile relationship with her—a relationship that involved domestic violence. Given that the Children were removed after a domestic violence incident, Father’s refusal to distance himself from Mother showed his unwillingness to correct the circumstances that led to the Children’s removal. Cf. id. ¶¶ 25–26 (“The father’s choice to remain involved with the mother—whether romantically or as a co-parent—placed the child at continued risk.”). In light of this strong evidence that Father exhibited a failure of parental adjustment, we conclude that it is unlikely that trial counsel’s performance had any impact on the court’s findings or conclusion on this ground for termination. In other words, even if counsel had performed more effectively in the ways Father identifies, it is not reasonably likely that the court would not have found at least one ground upon which to base its termination of Father’s parental rights. 

¶45 In short, our confidence in the outcome of this case is not undermined by any of trial counsel’s perceived shortcomings. Father’s claims of ineffective assistance are therefore unavailing. 

  1. Reunification Efforts

¶46 Next, Father contends that DCFS did not provide reasonable reunification services to him and that the juvenile court erred in finding to the contrary. Father asserts that despite knowing he needed help with his parenting skills given A.H.’s disabilities and N.H.’s attachment issues, DCFS did not provide additional support “until it was too late.” In particular, Father points out that the PCCIT sessions began during an extension period for reunification services and only one month before the second permanency hearing, at which the court terminated services. He further argues that DCFS’s efforts were unreasonable because its delay in providing PCCIT until he was “up against the permanency deadline” limited his success in the time allotted and “virtually assured termination of reunification services.” 

¶47 “Generally, as long as DCFS has made a fair and serious 

attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights, [DCFS] has complied with its statutory obligation.” In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 29, 437 P.3d 640 (cleaned up). But the process of reunification is recognized as “a two way street which requires commitment on the part of the parents, as well as the availability of services from the State.” In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 745 (per curiam) (cleaned up). Reunification services ordinarily last twelve months after a child’s removal, but the juvenile court may, under certain conditions, extend services for up to 180 days. Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-314(6)–(7) (LexisNexis 2018). Ultimately, “reasonableness is an objective standard that depends upon a careful consideration of the facts of each individual case,” and the juvenile court thus has “broad discretion in determining whether DCFS made reasonable efforts to reunify” a parent with a child. In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5 (cleaned up); accord In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 29. 

¶48 Here, DCFS provided numerous services to Father for more than a year, including drug testing, substance abuse treatment, psychological evaluation, domestic violence treatment, anger management classes, parenting classes, and weekly supervised visitation with the Children. The juvenile court extended these services, and it found that Father “actually engaged in the services,” knew what services needed to be completed, and “knew what was expected” of him. Yet Father, by his own fault, “took a lackadaisical approach to completing the services on time because he was relying on [Mother] to get the [C]hildren back.” The caseworker’s “[c]ajoling” at visits had “little effect” on Father. As discussed, DCFS’s provision of services is “a two way street which requires commitment on the part of the parents.” In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5 (cleaned up). 

But the court found that Father “did not take reunification services seriously for nearly a year.” While DCFS’s provision of various services and attempts to help Father were reasonable, Father bore the responsibility of participating in and completing those services, and it was Father’s “lackadaisical” and belated efforts that fell short. 

¶49 Father also complains that DCFS unreasonably delayed PCCIT, especially when the juvenile court found that the therapy “could have been provided earlier.” But Father overlooks that the court also found that PCCIT “was limited because the initial parenting class was not successful, even according to [Father].” Given Father’s lack of progress in parenting class and his overall lack of timely efforts, we cannot say that DCFS’s services were unreasonable under the circumstances. We thus reject this challenge to the court’s decision. 

III. Grounds for Termination 

¶50 Finally, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in terminating his parental rights on the ground of unfitness. He suggests that this ground is unsupported by the evidence because he had made significant progress by the time of trial and the court had returned Am.H. to his care. He also claims that the court erroneously deemed him an unfit parent when he merely failed to be a “model parent.” See generally Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(4) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that a parent’s fundamental liberty interest “does not cease to exist simply because a parent may fail to be a model parent”). 

¶51 To the extent that Father pursues a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, he has not carried his burden on appeal. Although he discusses unfitness and mentions neglect, he has not undertaken an analysis of each ground supporting the court’s termination decision. “And we will not reverse a ruling of a lower court that rests on independent alternative grounds where the appellant challenges less than all of those grounds.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66 (cleaned up). 

¶52 To the extent Father believes that the court terminated his 

rights based solely on his failure to be a model parent, we are not persuaded. The court made detailed findings in support of five grounds for termination, and this case involves much more serious problems than Father’s mere failure to be a model parent. Thus, we reject Father’s challenge to the grounds for termination. 

CONCLUSION 

¶53 Father has not shown that he was prejudiced by his trial counsel’s performance, and we therefore reject his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Father also has not established error in the juvenile court’s decisions regarding DCFS’s reasonable efforts and the grounds for termination. Accordingly, we affirm the court’s decision terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. 

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

 

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In re C.M.R. 2020 UT App 114 – abuse, ineffective assistance of counsel

2020 UT App 114
https://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/appopin/In%20re%20C.M.R…20200806_20190808_114.pdf
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF
C.M.R., B.T.R., P.J.R., F.S., AND O.S.,
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

C.S., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20190808-CA
Filed August 6, 2020

Sixth District Juvenile Court, Manti Department
The Honorable Brody Keisel
No. 1097000

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise M.
Bacalski, Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.
Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion,
in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred, with opinions.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 C.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order adjudicating abuse, neglect, and dependency. Mother argues that the court erred in concluding that she abused her children without also making an express finding of harm. Alternatively, Mother asserts that her counsel (Trial Counsel) rendered ineffective assistance in advising her to enter admissions to the petition without adequate investigation. We affirm in part and remand for a limited evidentiary hearing.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition in July 2019 seeking protective supervision of Mother’s five children (collectively, the Children). Based on information DCFS received from several referents, the petition alleged that the Children were abused, neglected, and dependent. Specifically, the petition asserted that Mother did not provide the Children with adequate nutrition and supervision; the Children lived in an unsanitary and unsafe home; Mother punished the Children with a hammer, fork, belt, and stick; Mother was unwilling to work with DCFS to address her lack of parenting skills, which exacerbated the Children’s behavioral issues and led to contentious and inconsistent visitation; and finally, Mother had recently been arrested. With regard to one child, the petition alleged that, while in the waiting room of a family counseling center, a witness observed,

Mother grabbed [the child] by the back-collar area of his shirt in such a manner that it restricted his ability to breathe and caused him to choke. Mother shoved his face into the corner with force and told him he needed to think about what he had done. [The child] told Mother he was having difficulty breathing and that Mother was hurting him. Despite [the child’s] statements Mother did not let up on his shirt or the forcing of his face into the corner.[1]

¶3        The juvenile court appointed Trial Counsel to represent Mother, and the parties reached a mediated agreement in response to the petition.[2] At the adjudication hearing held by the court following mediation, the State indicated that Mother would enter a plea responding to the allegations in the petition pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”).

¶4        The juvenile court explained that under rule 34(e), a parent who does not specifically deny the State’s allegations essentially enters a “no-contest” plea in which that parent neither admits nor denies an allegation, but such an answer under the rule is treated “as if it were an admission.” The court further explained that each parent enjoyed “the right to deny the allegations,” in which case the matter would go to trial and the State would bear “the burden of proving the allegations in the . . . petition by . . . clear and convincing evidence.” Mother stated that she understood the consequences of not specifically denying the allegations in the petition under rule 34(e), namely, that she would be giving up her right to contest the allegations contained in the petition and that her right to appeal would be limited. Mother further explicitly confirmed that she was not under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication during the hearing; that she was thinking clearly; and that she had not been forced, threatened, or promised anything to respond in a particular way to the allegations in the petition.

¶5        The juvenile court also asked Mother if she understood that by not denying the allegations under rule 34(e), she gave the court “authority to enter orders that would affect [her]. This could include orders for custody, visitation, child support, treatment requirements and parental rights.” The court informed Mother that if she “wanted more time” to ponder her decision, it would “be happy” to accommodate her. Mother assured the court that she was ready to proceed, and she invoked rule 34(e) with respect to the paragraphs of the petition that detailed the abuse and neglect suffered by the Children. The court then accepted Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions.

¶6        After a recess, the court reconvened. Mother and Trial Counsel immediately informed the court that there was an apparent conflict stemming from Trial Counsel’s representation of Mother’s former brother-in-law in a different case. Mother made a motion to withdraw her rule 34(e) admissions and set the matter for trial. The State opposed the motion. The guardian ad litem also opposed withdrawal, pointing out that by conducting an extensive “colloquy of rights,” the court ensured that Mother had made “a very knowing and voluntary admission to the facts.” Trial Counsel responded that Mother had realized, after talking to Trial Counsel during the recess, that the rule 34(e) plea would be taken “as an admission.” Trial Counsel also revealed that Mother had attempted to alert Trial Counsel to the potential conflict by writing a note to her during the hearing.

¶7        The court denied Mother’s oral motion to withdraw her plea, but it granted Mother leave to file a written motion to withdraw within thirty days, reasoning that Mother might determine that it was “okay” to accept the plea “after some more consideration as to what a [rule 34(e) plea] means.” However, the court noted that it was “very careful” during the colloquy to confirm that Mother knew what she was doing and was acting voluntarily. With regard to the conflict of interest, the court asked Trial Counsel, “Other than the technical relationship, was there anything in your representation that was awry or that you look back on and say well I may have advised her differently had I . . . known of the conflict . . . ?” Trial Counsel responded that her advice “would be the same,” pointing out that the conflict did not influence her because, at the time she rendered her advice, she did not know Mother and Mother’s ex-brother-in-law were, at one time, related. The court stated that even in the presence of the conflict, it did not observe anything “per se deficient in the way” Trial Counsel represented Mother. Mother agreed that there was nothing “specifically” wrong “in the way [Trial Counsel] represented” her in court but that she sought new counsel merely “because of the relationship that exists.” The court granted Trial Counsel’s motion to withdraw and appointed substitute counsel (Conflict Counsel), who entered an appearance for Mother approximately a month after the adjudication hearing.

¶8        About three weeks after the hearing, based on Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions, the juvenile court entered an adjudication order that deemed the allegations in the petition to be true and found the Children to be abused, neglected, and dependent. The court made no express finding that the Children had been harmed, but it did include in its written decision a detailed account of the incident in which Mother choked one of the Children by the shirt collar at a counseling session and stated that its findings of abuse, neglect, and dependency were based on, among other things, that incident. The court ordered that a Child and Family Service Plan (the Plan) be prepared for the family and each child, set a primary permanency goal of reunification, and ordered DCFS to provide reunification services to Mother. The court’s adjudication findings were used to generate the Plan, which required Mother to take those steps necessary to provide a home where the Children would be safe, nurtured, loved, and protected from any form of abuse or neglect. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(d) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (“[C]hild and family plans shall address problems that . . . keep a child in placement . . . .”). The Plan also recommended that Mother continue to receive therapy, with a particular emphasis on developing parenting skills and developing a more positive view toward the Children. While the Plan addressed abuse in general terms, it did not mention any specific incident of abuse or set forth specific requirements to address the abuse.

¶9        Ultimately, Mother never filed a written motion to withdraw her rule 34(e) admissions. However, in the course of investigating the case, Conflict Counsel discovered allegedly exculpatory evidence that Mother now asserts demonstrates that she received ineffective assistance of counsel leading up to and during the adjudication hearing. Specifically, Conflict Counsel obtained a statement from the Children’s babysitter, various police reports, and footage from a police body camera that Mother asserts Trial Counsel “would have found had she investigated” and that would have “negated Mother’s most damning pleas” under rule 34(e). Mother appealed the court’s adjudication order and subsequently filed a motion under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure seeking remand to the juvenile court to consider her claim of ineffective assistance. This court denied that motion but instructed Mother to address the need for remand in her appellate brief in accordance with In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109.[3]

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      Mother first asserts that the juvenile court erred when it failed to make an express finding of harm before it concluded that the facts to which Mother admitted in her rule 34(e) plea met the statutory requirements of abuse. Because Mother did not preserve this issue below, she seeks review under the plain error doctrine. To establish plain error, Mother must show that “(i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, our confidence in the verdict is undermined.” In re J.C., 2016 UT App 10, ¶ 12, 366 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified). “If any one of these requirements is not met, plain error is not established.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 20, 416 P.3d 443 (quotation simplified).

¶11 Mother also asks this court to determine whether Trial Counsel rendered ineffective assistance when she advised Mother to enter rule 34(e) admissions without adequately investigating the facts of the abuse allegations. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re S.S., 2015 UT App 230, ¶ 20, 360 P.3d 16 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Error of the Juvenile Court

¶12 Mother first asserts that the juvenile court erred when it found that she had abused the Children without making a “subsidiary finding that the abuse had caused the [Children] harm.” To prevail on a claim of “plain error,” Mother “must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the juvenile court; and (iii) the error is harmful.” See In re T.M., 2003 UT App 191, ¶ 26, 73 P.3d 959 (quotation simplified). Under the circumstances of this case, Mother cannot establish that the court erred in finding that Mother abused at least one of the Children and therefore cannot establish that the court would have ordered a different child and family service plan or reached different conclusions about the primary permanency goal even if it had not found that Mother abused the Children with household items and caused them harm.

¶13      The juvenile court found that the Children were “abused, neglected, and dependent” and, in its adjudication order, included reference to allegations that Mother punished the Children with “a fork, a belt, a stick, and other items” and that Mother collared one child and caused him to choke. Mother argues that simply stating that she punished the Children with objects and collared one child did not adequately support the court’s finding of abuse. Instead, she contends that the juvenile court was required to enter findings detailing the specific harm she caused the Children, given that the definition of “abuse” of a child under Utah law includes “nonaccidental harm” and “threatened harm.”[4] See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-105(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). And “harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage.” Id. § 78A-6-105(28).

¶14 As support for her assertion that the juvenile court committed an obvious error, Mother cites In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, 424 P.3d 91, for the proposition that the court’s order was insufficient and should have contained detailed findings of what harm Mother’s actions caused the Children. Id. ¶ 9 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”). But In re K.T. does not require a court to make a specific finding of harm, labeled as such. Rather, it “allow[s] the juvenile court to infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. Here, the facts Mother admitted at the adjudication hearing, see Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e), were sufficient for the court to find that at least one of the Children was harmed by Mother’s abusive behavior: While at a family counseling center, a witness observed Mother grab one child by the shirt collar with such force as to “restrict[] his ability to breathe and cause[] him to choke” as she forced his face into a corner. Mother continued to restrain the child even when the child told Mother that she was “hurting him” and that “he was having difficulty breathing.” The “evidence of the effects” of Mother’s actions allowed the juvenile court “to conclude that the [child] had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 14. The child informed Mother not only that she was hurting him but also that he was having trouble breathing and showing signs of choking. At the very least, we can infer a finding of harm from the juvenile court’s determination that Mother’s action “restricted [the child’s] ability to breathe and caused him to choke.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-109(1)(f)(ii) (LexisNexis 2017) (“‘Serious physical injury’ includes . . . any impediment of the breathing or the circulation of blood by application of pressure to the neck, throat, or chest, or by the obstruction of the nose or mouth, that is likely to produce a loss of consciousness . . . .”); see also State v. Stettina, 635 P.2d 75, 78 (Utah 1981) (“[M]aking it difficult [for a victim] to breathe . . . could reasonably place [a] victim in apprehension of bodily harm.”).

¶15 Though Mother has submitted additional non-record evidence intended to challenge some of the other incidents of abuse described in the court’s written decision, Mother has not offered much of a defense against the shirt-collar incident. She asserts only that the witness who reported the incident did not have a clear view of the events because Mother’s body was between the witness and the child. But Mother has not alleged that the incident did not occur or that it did not result in the child choking.[5] Accordingly, the juvenile court had before it clear and convincing evidence that established that Mother abused one of the Children and that the abuse caused that child harm.

¶16 With regard to the other allegations of abuse involving Mother punishing the “Children with a fork, a belt, a stick, and other items,” however, the juvenile court did not infer, let alone articulate, a finding of harm related to any of those incidents. This lack of articulating a finding of harm is problematic. See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 15 (stating that a finding that a parent “hit a child with another object” did not necessarily include an inference of harm, because the strike could have been delivered “lightly so that it did not cause” harm).

¶17      But even if we assume the court’s findings of abuse with regard to the household items are incomplete, Mother cannot show that she was prejudiced by the court’s error, because we have determined that evidence of the shirt-collar incident, standing alone, fully supported the court’s abuse finding with regard to one of the Children, and on appeal Mother has not contested the court’s neglect and dependency determination with regard to any of the Children. In this case, Mother cannot show a reasonable likelihood of a different outcome at the adjudication hearing even if the juvenile court had not included the household abuse facts in the adjudication order at all or if it had determined that no abuse occurred during the household incidents. Even in that event, the Plan would have been the same, and the primary permanency goal entered by the court would still have been reunification. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the juvenile court committed plain error, and we therefore affirm the court’s adjudication order.

II. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶18      Mother also claims that Trial Counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to conduct an adequate investigation into the facts of the abuse allegations against her. Specifically, Mother asserts that if Trial Counsel had investigated the State’s allegations of abuse more diligently, Trial Counsel would have discovered exculpatory evidence that would have refuted the allegations of abuse involving punishment using household items, including a hammer, fork, belt, and stick. Thus, Mother asserts that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in advising her to enter admissions pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure without first undertaking a sufficient investigation to uncover this exculpatory evidence.

¶19 To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that (1) “counsel’s performance was deficient” and (2) this “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); see also In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that parents are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in child welfare proceedings and adopting “the Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings involving termination of parental rights”). “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Mother’s] claims under either prong.” See Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶20      To show that Trial Counsel performed deficiently, Mother must overcome the strong presumption that Trial Counsel rendered adequate assistance by persuading the court that “considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. In other words, Mother must show that her “counsel rendered a deficient performance in some demonstrable manner, and that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonable professional judgment.” See State v. Martinez, 2020 UT App 69, ¶ 29, 464 P.3d 1170 (quotation simplified), petition for cert. filed, July 20, 2020 (No. 20200556).

¶21 To establish prejudice, Mother must “demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of . . . her case would have been different absent counsel’s error. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.” Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified).

¶22 Because the juvenile court’s adjudication findings regarding allegations of abuse involving punishment using household items have two distinct applications, our examination of Mother’s ineffective assistance claim is necessarily bifurcated with respect to the imminent use (namely, the court’s disposition and the formulation of the Plan) and prospective impact (namely, possible impact on this child welfare proceeding and in the future) of the court’s findings of abuse. Even if we assume that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in failing to fully investigate the facts supporting the allegations of abuse with household items, we are confident Mother was not prejudiced by the inclusion of those findings with regard to the development of and the requirements contained in the Plan. However, if Trial Counsel did fail to fully investigate the facts supporting the allegations of abuse and therefore performed deficiently in advising Mother to enter the rule 34(e) admissions, we are concerned that inclusion of those findings of abuse with household items in the adjudication order might prospectively prejudice Mother in her effort to successfully reunite with the Children in the future. Because this court does not consider new evidence on appeal, see Utah R. App. P. 11(a) (“The original papers and exhibits filed in the trial court . . . shall constitute the record on appeal in all cases.”), we must remand for an evidentiary hearing and direct the juvenile court to make factual findings regarding whether Trial Counsel performed deficiently by not fully investigating the allegations of abuse, and if so, whether Mother was prejudiced by following the advice of counsel to enter admissions rather than deny the allegations in the petition. We address the immediate and prospective application of the findings in turn.

A. Application of Disputed Facts to the Court’s Disposition and to the Plan

¶23 For the purpose of analyzing the effect of the juvenile court’s adjudication and disposition, we assume, without deciding, that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in failing to investigate, resulting in Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions and the court’s finding that Mother abused the Children with certain household objects. However, as discussed above, even if all the facts surrounding abuse involving household objects are excluded (i.e., all abuse allegations except the shirt-collar incident), Mother was not prejudiced by the court’s consideration of this evidence at the adjudication hearing, because the exclusion of these putative facts would not have changed the court’s reunification goal or changed the Plan itself. Although Mother concedes that there was a basis for the finding of neglect against her, she argues that if she “just had a neglect finding—based on the findings of an unclean home and inadequate lunches—[her] future with [the Children] would be much less precarious.”[6]

¶24 But Mother’s evaluation is unpersuasive in several respects because it looks primarily to the long-term effects of the inclusion of disputed facts—an issue we address below, see infra ¶¶ 28–32—and does not focus on whether the disputed facts had an impact on the court’s adjudication decision (for instance, on the court’s disposition or on the requirements of the Plan). And the juvenile court’s findings regarding the shirt-collar incident and other neglect which dictated the Plan’s requirements are well-supported. Our analysis of the Plan suggests that the disputed abuse facts had little to no impact on its provisions. The Plan primarily focuses on interventions necessary to assist Mother in acquiring parenting and life skills so that she will be able to provide an environment in which the Children can be safe, loved, nurtured, and protected. The Plan also focuses on the need for Mother to continue personal therapy and to resolve the pending legal issues she faces. Indeed, the Plan explicitly states that Mother does not appear to be “an inherently violent or antisocial individual.” Rather, the Plan characterizes her as lacking “the parenting skills needed to effectively manage [the Children’s] emotional and behavioral issues.”

¶25 Mother also downplays the finding of rather serious abuse related to the shirt-collar incident. Those provisions of the Plan that require Mother to provide an environment free from physical abuse could certainly have been necessitated by this incident alone. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(h) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (“[A] child and family plan may only include requirements that . . . address findings made by the court . . . .”) As addressed above, Mother has not offered much of a defense against this abuse allegation other than asserting that the witness who reported the incident did not have a clear view of the incident because Mother’s body was between the witness and the child. Nowhere does Mother challenge that the incident occurred or that it resulted in the child choking. And because the finding of abuse related to the shirt-collar incident was considered in crafting the appropriate child and family service plan for this family to address the problems and needs of the whole family, Mother cannot show that the Plan would have differed or that the court would have entered a different disposition had the court’s adjudication order not contained findings regarding the other incidents of abuse.

¶26 Finally, the juvenile court rightly did not overlook that this family has had a history of DCFS involvement for nearly a decade. Four prior investigations were closed because DCFS was unable to locate the family. Two recent situations giving rise to DCFS intervention with this family were supported by administrative findings of non-supervision and emotional abuse involving two of the Children. The juvenile court was well aware of this history and recounted this involvement in the findings of its adjudication order.

¶27 In short, given the above circumstances, Mother was not prejudiced with respect to the immediate result of the adjudication as it pertains to the court’s disposition and to the development of the Plan.

B. Prospective Effects of the Disputed Facts

¶28 As to the continued impact of the adjudication order’s abuse findings involving household items, however, we determine that Mother may well be prejudiced if those disputed facts are considered in whether Mother successfully complies with the requirements of the Plan and on any prospective application of that information. That is, the findings of abuse in the adjudication order create a benchmark for everything that happens in this child welfare case, and they will form the basis for whether Mother is able to comply with the requirements of the Plan going forward and whether she can be reunited with the Children. Thus, those particular abuse findings will continue to follow her throughout the pendency of this case and in any future case.[7]

¶29      In the order denying her rule 23B motion, this court told Mother, “[N]othing in this order shall be construed as precluding [Mother] from addressing the need for remand or raising further argument under In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, in [her] brief.” Pursuant to our direction, Mother attached extra-record evidence to her appellate brief suggesting that the Children’s reports of the abuse, especially with regard to the use of household items, may have been exaggerated, if not false.

¶30 In In re S.H., a mother raised a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that her attorney stipulated to allegations without the mother being present and without her consent. 2007 UT App 8, ¶ 10. On learning of her attorney’s conduct, the mother challenged the unauthorized admissions by filing an affidavit detailing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in conjunction with her petition for appeal. Id. ¶ 15. This court reasoned that because the admissions stipulated by her attorney likely prejudiced the mother, remand was necessary. Id. ¶¶ 16–20. Because “the procedural rules for child welfare appeals clearly contemplate claims for ineffective assistance of counsel,” “we remand[ed] to the juvenile court for an evidentiary hearing and direct[ed] the juvenile court to make factual findings regarding [the mother’s] ineffective assistance of counsel claim.” Id. ¶ 16; see also Utah R. App. P. 55(b) (explaining that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel should be raised on appeal in juvenile cases).

¶31 Here, Mother contends that Trial Counsel “performed deficiently and unreasonably when she did not investigate the case.” To that end, Mother has attached extra-record evidence uncovered by Conflict Counsel to her appellate brief. This evidence includes (1) a statement from a babysitter that may exonerate Mother, (2) police reports from February 2019 in which all the Children but one denied abuse by Mother, and (3) a transcript of the conversation recorded by a police body camera at the time of Mother’s arrest that Mother contends shows the Children were removed from her care not for abuse but because a DCFS worker thought Mother was “psycho.” If this evidence proves credible and was reasonably available before Trial Counsel advised Mother to enter admissions to the alleged abuse involving household items, it could support a determination that Mother received ineffective assistance because such information might undermine the propriety of Trial Counsel’s advice that Mother not contest the factual findings presented by the State.

¶32 Because we do not consider extra-record evidence on appeal, “the juvenile court is in a far better position to evaluate the evidence than an appellate court.” In re K.B., 2017 UT App 210, ¶ 14, 407 P.3d 1084 (quotation simplified). We thus remand to the juvenile court to conduct the procedure outlined in In re S.H. to make a determination of whether deficient performance on the part of Trial Counsel induced Mother to enter the disputed admissions under rule 34(e). And “while we do not conclude that Mother’s counsel was ineffective, we note that should the juvenile court find that Mother’s counsel failed to” adequately investigate the case and wrongly advised Mother to enter a rule 34(e) plea to the petition rather than contest the allegations, then such failures may well require the juvenile court to issue a revised adjudication order as it pertains to the factual findings on the alleged abuse involving household items. See In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, ¶ 17.

CONCLUSION

¶33      We conclude that Mother was not prejudiced by any error of the juvenile court in not entering specific findings of harm or any deficiency by Trial Counsel insofar as it concerns the court’s disposition and formulation of the Plan. However, because Mother may be prejudiced in her ability to comply with the Plan and because extra-record evidence indicates that Trial Counsel may have failed to adequately investigate the allegations in the petition, we remand to the juvenile court to conduct an evidentiary hearing regarding Mother’s allegations of ineffective assistance with regard to the findings of fact in the adjudication order related to abuse involving household items.

¶34      Affirmed in part and remanded.

HARRIS, Judge (concurring):

¶35 I concur in the lead opinion without reservation. I write separately to expand on the lead opinion’s observation, see supra note 3, that rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure does not apply in child welfare cases, and to wonder aloud about the extent to which our opinion in In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, is in conflict with the text of rule 1 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. That rule states, in no uncertain terms, that “Rules 9 and 23B do not apply” in child welfare proceedings. See Utah R. App. P. 1(f). Rule 23B, of course, is the rule that creates a procedure by which litigants can seek leave to submit extra-record material in support of an appellate claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶¶ 13–14, 12 P.3d 92 (stating that rule 23B “was specifically designed to address” “the dilemma created by an inadequate record of counsel’s ineffectiveness”). On its face, the language of rule 1(f) makes plain that our appellate rules afford no mechanism, in child welfare cases, for appellate litigants to introduce extra-record evidence in support of claims that their trial counsel was ineffective; there is at least an implication that, under the rules, such litigants may use only record evidence to support those claims.[8]

¶36 Despite the language of rule 1(f), which was in effect at the time, see Utah R. App. P. 1(f) (2006), our opinion in In re S.H. went ahead and allowed a party to obtain a rule 23B-like remand so that the juvenile court could consider certain extra-record evidence, including an affidavit, that the litigant filed for the first time on appeal. See 2007 UT App 8, ¶¶ 15–16. We stated that, “[b]y not allowing [the litigant] to submit record evidence regarding her ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we would effectively deny [the litigant’s] right to raise that claim.” Id. ¶ 16. We did not explain our authority for taking action in apparent contravention of rule, and we did not set forth any parameters (such as the deadlines and procedures set out in the actual text of rule 23B) advising litigants about how to go about availing themselves of the newly-announced procedural mechanism.

¶37      Since In re S.H. was decided, we have treated that opinion as creating a procedural mechanism, akin to rule 23B but not exactly like rule 23B, that allows litigants in child welfare proceedings to submit extra-record evidence in support of appellate claims of ineffective assistance. Typical is the order we issued earlier in this case, denying Mother’s rule 23B motion (because the rule does not apply) but allowing her to do essentially the same thing rule 23B would have allowed her to do, if it applied, by advising her to proceed pursuant to In re S.H.

¶38    I take no issue with the majority’s application of In re S.H. in this case, because it is our precedent, and no party to this case has asked us to reexamine it. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (“Stare decisis mandates that one panel of the court of appeals defer to the decision of a prior panel.”). But it certainly appears to me as though In re S.H. might merit reexamination in an appropriate case where, after full briefing and argument, we might analyze whether that case is in harmony with our rules of appellate procedure and, if not, whether there exists a valid basis—for instance, through inherent judicial power, as Judge Orme suggests, see infra ¶ 41—for our court to create such a mechanism on its own.

ORME, Judge (concurring):

¶39 I concur in the lead opinion. I write separately to offer a counterpoint to Judge Harris’s concurring opinion, in which he questions the basis on which we have remanded cases such as this one to vindicate a parent’s right to the effective assistance of counsel.

¶40 While it is true that In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, does not elaborate on the basis for the authority by which we permitted a remand mechanism in child welfare cases, arguably at odds with rule 1(f) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure,[9] I do not believe that this is problematic for two reasons—three if one includes the point made in footnote 9. First, parents involved in parental termination proceedings have an unquestioned right to the effective assistance of counsel, see In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994), and it seems obvious that to actualize that right in some termination cases, a remand procedure not unlike rule 23B for criminal cases must exist. Otherwise, how could this important issue come before us in cases such as this one, where the record would not allow us to determine whether a parent received the effective assistance of counsel? Because there is a right to the effective assistance of counsel during a parental-rights-termination proceeding, there must be a procedure by which we can assess whether that right was violated when such a claim is asserted and substantiated but the critical information is not part of the record on appeal. Without such a procedure, this “important right would ring hollow in the halls of justice.” Swekel v. City of River Rouge, 119 F.3d 1259, 1262 (6th Cir. 1997). I suspect that this realization, rather than some oversight or laxity in advocacy, explains why neither the Attorney General nor the Office of Guardian ad Litem has, in this case or in any other in the thirteen years since this court issued In re S.H., seen fit to question it.[10]

¶41      Second, although our rules of appellate procedure do not explicitly allow us to remand a termination case to develop a record of counsel’s claimed ineffective assistance, this is not dispositive of our ability to do so. In my view, we can do so in the sound exercise of our inherent power.[11] See United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338, 348 (1974) (describing the exclusionary rule as “a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights generally through its deterrent effect”). Thus, In re S.H. is best understood as an appropriate exercise of our inherent power to improvise such procedures as may be necessary to resolve important issues such as a parent’s constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel, and in doing so we avoid burdening parents “with a catch-22 unique to claims of ineffectiveness of trial counsel,” when “counsel’s ineffectiveness may have caused, exacerbated, or contributed to the record deficiencies,” State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 12, 12 P.3d 92, over which the affected parent had no control.

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[1] The record contains no identifying information about this witness or information that explains why the witness did not intervene during the encounter between Mother and the child.

[2] In addition to Mother, the two fathers of four of the Children were also involved in the mediation.

[3] Rule 23B (remand for findings necessary to adjudicate an ineffective assistance of counsel claim) does not apply in child welfare matters. See Utah R. App. P. 1(f) (stating that “Rules 9 and 23B do not apply” to child welfare proceedings). The concurring opinions of Judge Harris and Judge Orme address the remand procedure identified in In re S.H. as it intersects with the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. See infra ¶¶ 35–41.

[4] Utah law requires the juvenile court to conduct a disposition hearing “[i]f, at the adjudication hearing, the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the petition are true.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-311(1) (LexisNexis 2018). As our supreme court stated in In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, 424 P.3d 91,

The clear and convincing standard demands the introduction of evidence that makes “the existence of the disputed facts . . . very highly probable.” [Applying this principle] to the case before the juvenile court, the State needed to present evidence that would allow the court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the children had been harmed.

Id. ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified) (quoting Lovett v. Continental Bank & Trust Co., 286 P.2d 1065, 1067 (Utah 1955)).

[5] Mother asserts that the juvenile court could have considered the collaring incident “as reasonable discipline or appropriate physical restraint that is precluded from the abuse definition.” We find this argument unpersuasive. Restraining a young child in such a way as to choke him cannot be considered reasonable. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-109(1)(f)(ii) (LexisNexis 2017) (“‘Serious physical injury’ includes . . . any impediment of the breathing or the circulation of blood by application of pressure to the neck, throat, or chest, or by the obstruction of the nose or mouth, that is likely to produce a loss of consciousness . . . .”); id. § 76-2-401(2) (stating that the defense of justifiable conduct involving reasonable discipline of a minor “is not available if the offense charged involves causing . . . serious physical injury”).

[6] As noted above, Mother does not challenge the findings of neglect or dependency reached by the juvenile court in its adjudication.

[7] We agree with Mother that this case seems to present a situation analogous to an incorrect presentence investigation report (PSI) in the criminal context. A PSI can contain information about a criminal defendant’s family, education, health, criminal record, and employment history and will follow a defendant “through the justice system.” See State v. Irey, 2017 UT App 178, ¶ 5, 405 P.3d 876 (quotation simplified). Though incorrect information contained in a PSI will not necessarily require resentencing if not appropriately corrected, this court will often order limited remand to the district court to resolve any contested information contained in the PSI. See State v. Post, 2015 UT App 162, ¶ 11 n.7, 354 P.3d 810 (“Even where inaccuracies in a PSI do not affect a defendant’s sentence, it is necessary that the defendant’s objections be resolved on the record because the statements in a defendant’s PSI may be utilized in future settings, such as parole hearings.” (quotation simplified)).

[8] The drafters of rule 1(f) did not explain the rationale for making rule 23B inapplicable in child welfare proceedings, and—given that we must base our decisions on the text of the rule, and not on our own notions of what the drafters might have intended, see, e.g., Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n, 2014 UT 3, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 712 (stating that “the interpretive function for us is not to divine and implement the statutory purpose, broadly defined,” but instead is to “construe its language”)—their unstated rationale is not directly relevant anyway. But it does not take much imagination to envision a reason why the drafters might have wanted to limit child welfare litigants to record evidence in making claims for ineffective assistance: rule 23B remand proceedings often take quite a bit of time, and speed is often at a premium in child welfare cases. See In re K.C., 2015 UT 92, ¶ 27, 362 P.3d 1248 (stating that “[c]hildren have an interest in permanency and stability,” and that “[t]he expeditious resolution of a termination proceeding may well be of paramount importance”).

[9] I do not read as much into rule 1(f) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure as Judge Harris does. As concerns rule 23B, it merely states the obvious. Rule 23B is, by its own terms, limited to criminal cases. See Utah R. App. P. 23B(a). Parental-rights-termination cases are not criminal cases. With or without rule 1(f), rule 23B would not apply to termination cases or any other civil proceeding.

[10] 10. It is important to note that before the adoption of rule 23B, when we were confronted with this issue in criminal cases and did not remand the case to have the record developed on the claimed ineffective assistance, we were quick to point out that a defendant had the ability to vindicate his or her right to the effective assistance of counsel through a post-conviction petition. See, e.g., State v. Cummins, 839 P.2d 848, 858–59 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (“[W]hen the trial record is inadequate to permit a determination that defendant’s case has clearly been prejudiced by defense counsel’s deficient performance at trial, defendant is precluded from raising his ineffective assistance claim on appeal and must seek relief through post-conviction or habeas corpus proceedings.”); State v. Montes, 804 P.2d 543, 546 n.3 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“To the extent counsel’s failure to raise these issues might be taken as ineffective assistance, if [the defendant] pursues his claims on habeas corpus, that will be the appropriate time to develop an evidentiary record addressing these issues.”). See also State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 13, 12 P.3d 92 (“In short, the dilemma of an inadequate record created a regime that tended to channel ineffectiveness claims into the habeas arena, where the defendant faced numerous burdens not present on direct appeal.”). But in the context of parental-rights-termination proceedings, there is no similar avenue, and if we did not have a mechanism to remand to develop the record on direct appeal, parents would have no meaningful remedy by which to vindicate their right to the effective assistance of counsel.

[11] Ultimately, I am not convinced that rule 23B was even necessary to give appellate courts the power in criminal cases to supplement the record on appeal to get to the bottom of a constitutionally based claim such as the ineffective assistance of counsel. In my view, rule 23B came into existence not because such a rule was strictly necessary to create that opportunity but to regularize and refine it by setting standards, deadlines, and procedures governing such remands. And as previously noted, there was not a compelling need for the appellate courts to exercise their inherent authority and improvise such a procedure in the criminal context before rule 23B came into existence because criminal defendants had the opportunity to pursue such claims and develop the necessary evidentiary record in a post-conviction proceeding. But there is no analogous avenue available to parents whose parental rights have been terminated.

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2019 UT App 205, Utah Court of Appeals, State v. Wall – ex-wife murdered

2019 UT App 205 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee,
v.
JOHNNY BRICKMAN WALL,
Appellant.

Opinion
No. 20151017-CA
Filed December 12, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable James T. Blanch
No. 131903972

Troy L. Booher, Freyja Johnson, and Beth Kennedy, Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes and Tera J. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.
HAGEN, Judge:

¶1           A jury convicted Johnny Brickman Wall of murdering his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler.[1] Wall appeals his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, that the district court erred in admitting certain DNA evidence, and that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the State’s closing argument involving the DNA evidence. We conclude that Wall has not carried his burden on appeal to show there was insufficient evidence to support his murder conviction. Further, the district court did not exceed its discretion in admitting certain DNA evidence, and Wall’s trial counsel did not perform deficiently in failing to object to the prosecutor’s characterization of that evidence in closing argument. Accordingly, we affirm Wall’s conviction.

BACKGROUND

Marriage and Divorce

¶2           In 1988, a mutual friend introduced Uta to Wall while they were each completing doctorate programs on the west coast. Wall and Uta married in 1990, and Wall graduated from medical school four years later. After medical school, Uta, Wall, and their newborn son moved to Utah for Wall’s residency program. Over the next few years, they had three more children together.

¶3           By 2005, the marriage had failed and Uta moved out of the family home, leaving the four children to live primarily with Wall. The couple divorced in 2006.

¶4           Wall and Uta responded differently to the divorce. According to their children, Wall was “very, very sad” and depressed after the divorce, but over time his mood changed from sadness to “anger, even hatred” toward Uta. Wall frequently complained to the children about Uta, saying that she was “a bad parent,” that she was “selfish,” and that she made his “life difficult.” The children said that Wall never treated Uta “nicely or kindly” after the divorce. At one point, Wall “physically removed” Uta from his property when she “tried to come in the front yard” to pick up the children for her parent time.

¶5 Most people who knew Wall knew that he “despised” Uta. He asked his friends, “Would it be bad if Uta wasn’t here anymore?” and “How would my life be if she weren’t around?” He sent emails to Uta accusing her of immoral acts and threatening to “move away” with the children “or continue towards obtaining full custody.” He blamed Uta for his unhappiness and accused her of “hurt[ing] people that matter deeply” to him. When she reached out to him regarding requests from the children’s friends for weekend trips, he asked her to “please stop inserting [herself] in [his] parent time.”

¶6           It was clear that Wall did not want Uta in the children’s lives. The summer before her death, Wall took the children to California but refused to tell them when they were returning to Utah because he did not want them to tell Uta. If the children attempted to communicate with Uta while they were with Wall, “he would become very upset” and would sometimes take their phones away from them. He was uncooperative with Uta regarding parent-time exchanges and adjustments to the custody arrangement. Wall frequently ignored Uta’s messages, and she had to organize parent-time schedules through her older children.

¶7           Uta’s response to the divorce was quite different. Her friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances who testified at trial knew Uta to be “very outgoing, very friendly, very cheerful,” and “full of life.” Those witnesses said her positive attitude continued after the divorce, and some people “certainly thought she was happier” after the divorce. She was welcoming to newcomers and frequently brought homemade treats to work or to social gatherings. She regularly engaged in physical activities such as swimming, running, hiking, skiing, and camping. Uta was in a “very happy” relationship with a man (the boyfriend) whom the children liked, and the two eldest children told family members that they “were so happy that Uta had [the boyfriend]” because he was “a really, really good match for Uta.” No witness testified that Uta was unhappy or suicidal, except for Wall.

¶8           Uta was very involved in her children’s lives. Although she “had a great love and passion for science,” she arranged with her supervisor to work a “30-hour work week” because “it was important to her to be available for [her children] after [school] hours.” “Uta’s greatest pleasure in life was the love of her four children,” and she wanted to spend more time with them. She attended their sporting events and musical performances and created photo albums for each of them.

¶9           One of the few things that upset Uta was attempting to work with Wall regarding the children. A few years after the divorce, Uta hired an attorney to file a petition to modify the divorce decree regarding parent time, and the court ordered mediation. Although Wall and Uta reached an agreement during mediation, Wall later refused to sign the proposed order. Thus, for years following the divorce, the custody arrangement was never sorted out and remained a “constant battle.”

¶10 Early in September 2011, after years of unsuccessfully attempting to work out a better custody arrangement outside of court, Uta reached out to her attorney to discuss filing a new petition to modify the divorce decree and to consider moving to appoint a custody evaluator. Wall ignored Uta’s inquiries related to the children, including whether he would either agree to sign the custody evaluation request or agree to the proposed parent-time schedule for the upcoming school year. He also frequently ignored his own attorney’s communications related to these requests. The week before Uta’s death, in an apparent change of course, Wall agreed to sign the custody evaluation request the following week. But after he left the children in Uta’s care for the weekend, Wall “excited[ly]” told a new acquaintance that “he was getting his kids back.”

Uta’s Final Days

¶11 The week before her death, Uta had made a discovery in her research that could advance a new treatment for childhood leukemia. According to her supervisor, the “long-term implications of that discovery” were “very exciting on a professional level, on a career level, both for Uta and . . . the lab, because [it would] lead[] to new peer-reviewed publications, grants, [and] presentations.” This was a “milestone” in Uta’s career that would have had “positive implications” for her.

¶12 On September 26, 2011, the day before her body was discovered, Uta had a meeting with her supervisor and another coworker related to this new discovery, and they were all “quite enthusiastic” because “[t]his was one of the biggest discoveries [they] had had thus far in the laboratory.” Later that evening, Uta attended one of the children’s soccer games and was “in a great mood.” She spread out a blanket and shared treats with other parents. Uta told a fellow parent that she “had been camping that weekend with her kids and [her boyfriend]” and was looking forward to her upcoming trip to California with her two youngest children later that week while Wall took the two eldest children to visit universities back east.

¶13 After the soccer game, Wall arrived at Uta’s house to take the children back home. When he arrived, Uta tried to talk with him to finalize the details for the California trip, but Wall “rolled up his window and ignored her.” According to the children, Wall appeared annoyed on the drive home.

¶14 With the children out of the house, Uta went about her usual Monday evening routine of “deep cleaning” the house. Uta called her boyfriend and made plans with him for the following night. At around 10:45 p.m., Uta spoke with a friend over the phone about potential plans for the next day. That was the last time anyone heard from Uta.

September 27, 2011

¶15 The following morning, on September 27, 2011, Uta’s neighbors did not see her at her kitchen table drinking coffee and reading her newspaper, as she did all other mornings. Instead, the newspaper remained in the driveway, and the garbage cans Uta put out for collection the night before remained on the street.

¶16 That same morning, Uta’s eldest daughter awoke at around 6:00 a.m. and got ready for school. She searched the house for Wall, who usually drove her to the light rail station, but she could not find him anywhere. The eldest daughter testified that if Wall had to leave for the hospital in the middle of the night, he would “generally . . . text [her] or call [her]” to let her know, but he had not left her any messages that morning. After calling him twice with no answer, the eldest daughter walked to the station to go to school. Wall was spotted by the eldest daughter’s schoolmate and her mother at 7:05 a.m., driving some distance away from and in the opposite direction of his house, and Wall still had not returned home to get the youngest children ready for school by the time the eldest son left for school around 7:30 a.m. But the two youngest children remembered speaking with Wall at some point before leaving for school. Specifically, they remembered seeing an injury to Wall’s eye. Wall told them that he had slept outside on the porch and had been scratched by their dog, but the youngest daughter thought Wall was acting “weird, almost paranoid.” Just after 8:00 a.m., a carwash facility photographed Wall dropping off his car. Wall took his car there to “detail the inside” and asked the carwash attendant to focus “extra heavy” in the trunk cargo area and on a spot on the driver’s side back seat.

¶17 After leaving his car to be detailed, Wall arrived late for appointments with patients. He “looked disheveled and anxious,” appeared not to have bathed, and wore the same clothes as the previous day. A medical assistant noticed that he had a scratch on the left side of his face and that his left eye was “reddened and bloodshot.” Although two people who worked in Wall’s office said that this scratch looked like it was caused by a fingernail, “Wall volunteered an explanation for the scratch, saying that his dog jumped on him and scratched his face while he was sleeping outside.” One of the assistants “thought [this] explanation was odd because [Wall] had his dog for a long time and she had never seen it scratch him before.” When Wall noticed that his assistant was looking at additional scratches on his arms, he “quickly” rolled down his sleeves. After seeing one patient, Wall left to see an eye doctor and did not return to work.

¶18 When the eldest children returned home, they too noticed the scratch to Wall’s face and eye. Wall told them that he had been sleeping outside occasionally over the past few months and that their dog had scratched him the night before while he slept outside on the porch. None of the children had ever seen Wall sleep outside on the porch, and none of them knew their dog to scratch anyone.

The Crime Scene

¶19 At around 7:45 p.m. on September 27, 2011, Uta’s boyfriend went to visit her as they had planned the night before. Uta’s garbage cans were still on the street, and her newspaper was still in the driveway. The boyfriend walked into her house through her unlocked door, which Uta normally locked before going to bed. He noticed that her bathroom door was slightly ajar and that the light was on. On his way to the bathroom, he walked past her bedroom and noticed that the blinds, which were always open, had been pulled shut. The boyfriend reached the bathroom, announced his presence, opened the door, and found Uta dead in her bathtub with the cold water running but not overflowing. She wore only her pajama shorts, and her bloodied tank top was folded at the edge of the bathtub. The boyfriend called the police, who quickly arrived on the scene.

¶20 Upon entering the house, the first responders noted that there were pills strewn across the bedroom floor, a lamp had toppled over on the bed, and a vase and books from the nightstand had been knocked onto the floor. The comforter on the bed had been balled up in a way that appeared to conceal several dried bloodstains. The fitted bed sheet contained one large pool of blood and two smaller pools of blood that “show[ed] motion in three different directions,” indicating “a sign of a real struggle.” There was also a bloodstain on the pillowcase. In the bathroom, there was blood smeared on the sink and below the windowsill located above the bathtub, but there was no blood smeared on the walls between Uta’s bedroom and bathroom or on any of the light switches. There was a shampoo bottle standing upright in the middle of the bathroom floor, which was usually kept in the windowsill above the bathtub. Under Uta’s body, the first responders found a large kitchen knife. Also in the bathwater was a magazine, the sports section of the newspaper (which Uta never read), and the youngest daughter’s photo album. There were dried bloodstains that looked like shoeprints on the kitchen floor.

¶21 Some of the officers testified that the scene appeared “suspicious,” as if “there could have been a struggle,” and that it “did not appear consistent with an overdose or accidental death.” After leaving the scene, one of the officers contacted detectives to conduct an investigation.

Wall’s First Version of the Events of September 26 and 27

¶22 Later that night, the detectives arrived at Wall’s house to ask him “if he was willing to come down to [the] police station to talk.” The officers did not tell Wall what they wanted to talk about, and he did not ask them.

¶23 While Wall waited to be interviewed, the detectives first interviewed the boyfriend. The boyfriend was “compliant” and “helpful.” He did not “have any trouble time-lining himself, explaining what he had been doing the weekend before, [or what happened] the day before. He seemed to be honest in all of his answers.”

¶24 In contrast, Wall’s responses to the detectives’ questions were vague and he spoke in generalities rather than directly answering questions about what occurred the previous night. When the detectives asked where he went the night before after picking up the children from Uta’s house, Wall said, “I don’t know . . . I don’t rem . . . I mean, I don’t usually remember every . . . what I do, but . . . ah . . . usually what we do.” (Omissions in original.) He went on tangents about what usually happened when he retrieved the children from Uta’s house at the conclusion of her parent time. The officers kept redirecting Wall, stating, “So what happened last night, though, [Wall]? This was just last night.” But Wall continued to respond to inquiries about the previous night with things the family “usually” did on Monday evenings or what the children “sometimes” did when they got back to Wall’s house. Wall could not say if he had been home the entire night or if he had gone back to Uta’s house after picking up the children. Wall evaded direct answers about the last time he had seen Uta, and he could not remember if he had recently touched Uta or the last time he had been inside Uta’s house. When directly asked if he had been inside Uta’s house on September 26 or 27, Wall responded, “I don’t think so.” When asked if there was “any reason, whatsoever, that [his] DNA . . . would be under [Uta’s] fingernails,” Wall responded, “I don’t know.” When he was asked if he killed Uta, he said, “I don’t think I did it,” “I don’t think I was there,” and, “If I did it, I did make a mistake, and I am sorry. But I don’t think I did it.”

¶25 Eventually, over the span of three hours, Wall gave an account of the things he did on September 27, 2011. He told the detectives that he went to a gas station near his house to purchase eggs between 6:45 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. He said he returned to the house and had breakfast with his two youngest children before taking them to school. Wall then went to a carwash facility because he had “extra time” that morning and there were “burritos spilled all over” the front passenger seat. He talked about going to his office, seeing the eye doctor regarding the scratch on his eye—which he again said his dog caused—and returning to the carwash to get his car before driving to his office at the hospital. At the hospital, Wall apparently parked his car and left his windows rolled down with his cell phone still inside the vehicle. He claimed that his cell phone had been stolen by the time he returned.

¶26 Wall could not tell the officers what he had done between 8:00 p.m. on September 26, 2011, and 6:45 a.m. the following day.

¶27 After interviewing Wall, the detectives had photographs taken of Wall’s injuries and had a technician take his fingerprints. Wall was not arrested, and a detective arranged a ride home for him. One of the detectives testified at trial that Wall was “surprised” that he was being released and asked, “[S]o I’m not going to jail?” When the detective said he was not, Wall responded, “[B]ut I’m a monster.”

Wall’s Conduct Following Uta’s Death

¶28 When Wall returned home from his interview with the detectives at around 2:30 a.m., he bluntly told the children, “Uta’s dead and they think I did it.” He told the youngest daughter “not to leave him alone because he was scared he would do something he would regret.” Wall curled up “in the fetal position” and cried. He started “babbling and rambling” and “saying things along the line of: ‘Am I a monster? Only a monster could have done this. How do I know what I do when I’m asleep? What if I did it and I don’t remember?’” The children and family friends testified that Wall repeatedly referred to himself as a monster in the days following Uta’s death. The eldest son explained that Wall’s ramblings made him “question[] [Wall’s] involvement in [his] mother’s death.”

¶29 One of the children called a family friend to help Wall. Wall told this friend, “Uta is dead and they think I did it . . . .” When she asked him, “[D]id you do these things that—that the police said you did?” Wall responded, “If I did them, I don’t remember.” When this friend started looking for some of Wall’s medications, he told her that he had been “sleeping outside recently” and that “the dog scratched him on his face.” She asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” And then he showed her his eye. The friend noticed other scratches and “gouges” on Wall’s body, which he quickly covered up. Because Wall was so “distraught,” the friend wanted to offer him a sedative and asked him if he was familiar with Xanax. Even though he was a medical doctor and had twice prescribed himself Xanax after his divorce from Uta, Wall claimed not to know what it was. After the friend explained Xanax’s purpose, Wall claimed to remember recently prescribing his mother Xanax “because she’s afraid to fly.” Wall then started telling the friend that “[a]ll he wanted was for Uta to be happy . . . and that’s all he ever wanted,” which the friend found to be “unusual because [she] felt like he was very angry at Uta” and did not believe that Wall really wanted her to be happy.

¶30 That same morning, Wall checked himself into a psychiatric facility where he stayed for about a week. While he was receiving treatment, the eldest son and a family friend visited him and asked him questions about Uta’s death. During this conversation, Wall asked his son, “If the police found my phone there [at Uta’s house,] what could I say to refute that?”

¶31 After Wall’s release from psychiatric treatment, the children resumed living with him, but his behavior changed. Over time, Wall restricted the children’s communication with Uta’s family and the boyfriend. Wall told the children that the boyfriend should have “come to him and comforted him in his time of need,” and therefore the boyfriend should not be allowed to communicate with the children. (Emphasis added.) Wall also began telling his children that Uta committed suicide and told the youngest son, “[M]aybe it’s better that she’s dead.” He became more “confrontational,” “aggressive and intimidating” toward the children regarding Uta’s death. The eldest son moved out of Wall’s house the day after an “uncomfortable incident” in January 2012, in which Wall asked him “what [he] knew about [his] mom’s death” and “what attorneys [he] had contacted.” By May of that year, the three other children were also no longer living with Wall.

¶32 After Uta’s death, the eldest son went to Uta’s house to collect the children’s photo albums to send them to Uta’s family in Germany. He could not enter the house on his own because the spare key that was normally left outside for the children was missing and never found. After receiving help from the boyfriend to gain access to the house, the eldest son retrieved the albums and sent them to Germany. The eldest son informed Wall that he had sent the photo albums to Germany and that Wall would receive copies of the albums. In November 2012, Wall sued the eldest son for conversion and demanded to have the photo albums returned to him. In response, the eldest son filed a counterclaim against Wall for Uta’s wrongful death.

Wall’s Second Version of the Events of September 26 and 27

¶33 At a hearing on the wrongful death claim, at which Wall was present, the lead detective testified that he was actively investigating Uta’s death as a homicide and that Wall was the primary suspect. He further testified that “DNA samples had been submitted to [a] lab for testing” and that those results were still pending.

¶34 After this hearing, Wall was deposed and asked about his whereabouts between September 26 and 27. During his deposition, Wall offered new details to account for how his or Uta’s DNA might have transferred to the areas tested by police. For instance, police took a swatch of fabric from the driver’s side back seat where Wall had pointed out a spot at the carwash. Wall volunteered that, when he picked up the children from Uta’s house the night before her death, Uta had opened the driver’s side rear passenger door to hug the youngest daughter. Wall also claimed, for the first time, that he had caught Uta walking out of his garage later that night. Wall said he pursued Uta and “[s]he turned around and hit [him] in the face” and might have scratched him. He claimed that Uta had broken into his basement “multiple times in the previous months,” but that he never reported it to the police.

¶35 Although the DNA results were still pending, counsel deposing Wall asked him, “Why is your DNA in Uta’s bedroom?” He said he did not know if his DNA was there, but that Uta had invited him into her bedroom before “to seduce [him],” although he declined her advances. He could not remember when she last invited him into her bedroom but said that it could have been one or two months before her death.

¶36 Wall also testified in his deposition that Uta attempted suicide once on their honeymoon in 1991 and again while she was pregnant with their youngest son. But Wall said that he never reported either suicide attempt[2] or helped Uta seek counseling or treatment.

¶37 Finally, Wall gave a different version of events regarding his whereabouts on September 27, 2011, than what he told the detectives. This time, Wall explained that after allegedly chasing Uta away and being hit by her in the face, he went back inside his house to sleep. He woke up around 5:00 a.m. and decided to go to the hospital to work on his patients’ charts but realized that he forgot his identification and could not enter the hospital. Wall said he decided to go for a hike up a nearby canyon before the sun rose and before going to the carwash facility and then to work. Unlike the story he told at his police interview, this version of events did not include Wall being at home that morning with the two youngest children and the newly purchased eggs before school, even though the youngest children testified to that effect.

The Investigation

¶38 While Wall was getting psychiatric treatment in September 2011, Uta’s body was sent to a medical examiner to perform an autopsy. Although some of the officers believed there could have been foul play and that her death appeared suspicious, an investigator’s report provided to the medical examiner said her death was “a probable suicide overdose.” The medical examiner later testified that, had the “case been presented . . . as a suspicious death or homicide,” he would have taken more photographs of the body and conducted a more thorough examination. The medical examiner noted “sharp force injuries on her left wrist . . . in three separate locations,” a bruise on her lip, an abrasion on her cheek, and a laceration to her lower leg. Uta also had internal hemorrhages in her neck, which could have been sustained by a “broad and/or soft blunt object being applied in that location,” and petechiae (burst capillaries) in her right eye, each of which were consistent with strangulation. Uta had a near-lethal dose of Xanax in her system, but there were no pill remnants in her stomach. The medical examiner was “not looking specifically for an injection site anywhere,” because the case was brought to him as a probable suicide, but he testified that any of the injuries on Uta’s body “could potentially obscure an injection site” if that was how the Xanax got into her system. The medical examiner explained that the nature of Uta’s wounds was “not like anything [he] had ever seen in a suicide,” because they appeared to be defensive rather than self-inflicted, and that he had concerns that the police were “dealing with a homicide.”

¶39 After conducting the autopsy, the medical examiner concluded that Uta’s cause of death was drowning but could not determine the manner of death. Based on his concerns that the manner of death may have been homicide, the medical examiner asked the officers to meet with him to discuss his findings. Because he could not determine how the Xanax got into her system, he asked the officers if they were conducting further investigation. The sergeant in charge of the case at that time “basically [said] that we think this is a suicide, period.” The medical examiner told the officers that he was “not going to call this a suicide,” and that the manner of death was “undetermined” based on what he knew. The medical examiner explained that the scene of the crime was “suspicious,” that it appeared “more consistent with homicide than anything else,” and that “but for the Xanax” in Uta’s system, he “would have certified the death as a homicide.”

¶40 A few weeks after the medical examiner performed the autopsy, the investigation stalled. Between November 2011 and November 2012, the boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, the eldest son, and some of Uta’s other family members kept pressing the police to investigate the case as a homicide. Finally, in November 2012, the investigation resumed in earnest.

¶41 A crime scene reconstructionist reviewed the photographs taken by the investigators the night Uta’s body was found, visited Uta’s house after it had been cleaned, and reviewed the items collected from the scene. The reconstructionist determined that Uta had been murdered and that the murderer had staged the scene to look like a suicide. The reconstructionist, who had special training and expertise in “blood pattern interpretation,” analyzed the blood patterns on Uta’s comforter and fitted sheet and concluded that a “violent struggle” occurred and that Uta struggled “under a restraint.” The reconstructionist also analyzed Uta’s bloodied tank top that had been folded and laid over the side of the bathtub. Although there was one saturated spot on the chest where it appeared Uta had held her bleeding wrist against her body, there was “no hand transfer” of blood onto the tank top where one would expect to see it if Uta had removed the tank top herself. The reconstructionist opined that the bloodstains in the bathroom under the windowsill and on the sink appeared to have occurred while Uta was being pushed into the bathroom. The bloodstains were not consistent with Uta being “intoxicated and stumbling around her house on her own” because there were no apparent patterns on the walls of someone staggering or touching surfaces to get from the bedroom to the bathroom.

¶42 Forensic testing also revealed that there were bloody shoeprints in the bathroom and the bedroom and that there was a bloody spot above Uta’s headboard. These blood stains initially went undetected because they had been cleaned up before the boyfriend discovered Uta’s body and first responders arrived at the scene. A crime scene technician discovered these bloodstains using a special chemical that changes color when it comes into contact with blood protein, which helped to make the “partially visible” or “faint” bloodstains in the bedroom and on the bathroom floor more visible.

¶43 Unlike the faint bloodstains that were overlooked by the first responders, dried-blood shoeprints had been immediately apparent in Uta’s kitchen. The crime scene reconstructionist explained that those stains would not have come from “rehydrated blood” because if the blood had dried and a person with a wet shoe stepped into the blood and started walking, that person “might get flakes . . . [or] portions” of blood, but it would not make a full bloody shoeprint. The reconstructionist concluded that the evidence showed another person had been present and attacked Uta and that “this scene was a homicide that was staged to look like a suicide.”

¶44 Investigators searched to find where the Xanax may have come from. Uta was never prescribed Xanax, she had never told anyone she had taken it, and no prescription bottle for it was found at her house. Even though Uta sometimes stored her medication in film canisters, those canisters were always labeled. Further, Uta kept a yearly “medicine calendar” in which she dutifully documented the medications she took, the amount she took, and her “level of wellness” related to those medications. Nowhere on these calendars did Uta document taking Xanax.

¶45 On the other hand, Wall had twice prescribed himself .5 milligrams of Xanax following the divorce. And, just four months before Uta’s death, Wall wrote a prescription for the highest dosage of immediate release Xanax, which is 2 milligrams, and filled that prescription at a pharmacy that he had never used before or since. Wall claimed that he filled this prescription for his mother who lived in California, but in their initial interviews with investigators, Wall’s parents could not confirm whether they ever received such a medication.

¶46 At the crime scene, the investigators collected, among other things, a pillowcase and scrapings from underneath Uta’s fingernails to be tested for DNA evidence. Using different techniques, investigators extracted DNA samples from each of these items. The forensic analysis revealed that Wall was a possible contributor to the DNA located on the pillowcase, but Wall could not be included or excluded as a possible contributor to the male DNA located under Uta’s fingernails. Uta’s ex-boyfriend, the boyfriend, and the first responders were all excluded as possible contributors to the DNA located under Uta’s fingernails.

¶47 More than two years after Uta’s death, the State charged Wall with murder. During the four-week jury trial, the State presented the evidence detailed above. The jury also heard, among other things, from two forensic pathologists who were given Uta’s autopsy report with photographs, police reports, crime scene photographs, crime laboratory reports, photographs of Wall’s face taken on September 27, 2011, the report from Wall’s eye doctor, the preliminary hearing testimony of the medical examiner, and Uta’s healthcare reports. Both agreed that Uta’s wounds to her wrists and leg were not self-inflicted and were instead defensive wounds. They both determined that, although there was a near-lethal dose of Xanax in her system, the low level of Xanax in Uta’s stomach was consistent with either the drug being injected into her body or swallowed as a slurry­ meaning that the pills had been crushed and mixed with a liquid. Both of the forensic pathologists concluded that Uta’s manner of death was homicide.

¶48 The jury convicted Wall of murder. Wall now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶49 Wall argues that the evidence of guilt was insufficient to support the jury’s verdict “because the inference that [Wall] killed [Uta] is less likely than the inference that [Uta] killed herself, whether accidentally or intentionally.” “In considering an insufficiency-of-evidence claim, we review the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 15, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). “We will reverse only when the evidence, so viewed, is sufficiently inconclusive or inherently improbable that reasonable minds must have entertained a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime of which he or she was convicted.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶50 Wall next argues that the district court erroneously admitted certain DNA evidence through expert testimony. We review the district court’s decision to admit expert testimony under an abuse-of-discretion standard, and “we will not reverse a decision to admit or exclude expert testimony unless the decision exceeds the limits of reasonability.” Walker v. Hansen, 2003 UT App 237, ¶ 12, 74 P.3d 635 (cleaned up).

¶51 Wall also argues that his trial counsel “was ineffective for failing to object when the State mischaracterized the DNA results” in closing argument. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law. In such a situation, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Archuleta, 2019 UT App 136, ¶ 17, 449 P.3d 223 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

¶52 Wall argues that “the evidence is insufficient to exclude reasonable doubt.” Specifically, he argues that “the State’s construal of circumstantial evidence . . . that [Uta] was attacked, restrained, and injected with Xanax, all without leaving restraint marks on her body or any DNA evidence . . . was physically possible,” but “it [was] not the most reasonable explanation.” Instead, he claims that the most reasonable explanation is that Uta’s death was an accident or a suicide.

¶53 To succeed on a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, the appellant “has the burden to marshal the evidence in support of the verdict and then demonstrate that the evidence is insufficient when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 68, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). On appeal, we do not reweigh the evidence presented to the jury. “When the evidence presented is conflicting or disputed, the jury serves as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given particular evidence.” State v. Workman, 852 P.2d 981, 984 (Utah 1993). “Ordinarily, a reviewing court may not reassess credibility or reweigh the evidence, but must resolve conflicts in the evidence in favor of the jury verdict.” Id. We are thus restricted to “evaluat[ing] whether the evidence is so inconclusive or inherently improbable that it could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.

¶54 Wall concedes throughout his brief that “suicide and homicide are at least equally probable.” He says that all of the evidence is “consistent with homicide” but that the same evidence is at least “equally consistent” with suicide and that some evidence is “more consistent” with suicide. In making this argument, Wall relies on language from State v. Cristobal, 2010 UT App 228, 238 P.3d 1096. In that case, we suggested that “[w]hen the evidence supports more than one possible conclusion, none more likely than the other, the choice of one possibility over another can be no more than speculation.” Id. ¶ 16. But as our supreme court has since clarified, “the fact that we can identify an ‘equally’ plausible alternative inference is not nearly enough to set [a] verdict aside.” State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 25, 349 P.3d 664. On appeal, “[t]he question presented is not whether some other (innocent) inference might have been reasonable,” but “simply whether the inference adopted by the jury was sustainable.” Id. ¶ 27.

¶55 Wall argues that the jury’s verdict was not based on reasonable inferences, but on speculation. He posits that the “distinction [between reasonable inferences and speculation] turns on whether there are equally likely interpretations of the evidence.” Here, because “the evidence and inferences did not preclude the reasonable alternative hypothesis presented by the defense,” he contends that the jury’s verdict was based on speculation, which does not constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (Quoting State v. Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 11, 291 P.3d 847 (cleaned up).) Despite the broad language used in some of our past opinions, “the law is well established that the existence of one or more alternate reasonable hypotheses does not necessarily prevent the jury from concluding that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 11 (cleaned up). “It is the exclusive province of the jury to weigh the competing theories of the case, in light of the evidence presented and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, and to conclude which one they believe.” Id. (cleaned up). Therefore, “despite the existence of theoretically ‘reasonable’ hypotheses, it is within the province of the jury to judge the credibility of the testimony, assign weight to the evidence, and reject these alternate hypotheses.” State v. Blubaugh, 904 P.2d 688, 694–95 (Utah Ct. App. 1995). Indeed, “a finding that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is necessarily a finding that any alternative hypothesis of innocence presented at trial was not reasonable under the jury’s view of the evidence.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 12.

¶56 Consequently, it is not enough for Wall to show that the evidence would have permitted a reasonable juror to accept the defense’s theory that Uta’s death was an accident or suicide. “These are fair arguments for counsel to present to the jury in closing.” Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 24. But once the jury has rejected the alternative explanation offered by the defense, “an appellate court will reverse such a finding only where no reasonable juror could have taken that view of the evidence.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 12. “The question presented is not whether we can conceive of alternative (innocent) inferences to draw from individual pieces of evidence, or even whether we would have reached the verdict embraced by the jury.” Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 24. Instead, it is “simply whether the jury’s verdict is reasonable in light of all of the evidence taken cumulatively, under a standard of review that yields deference to all reasonable inferences supporting the jury’s verdict.” Id.

¶57 The jury’s determination that Uta was murdered is well supported by the evidence admitted at trial. As to the crime scene, multiple witnesses testified that there was evidence of a “violent struggle.” Items throughout Uta’s bedroom were knocked over onto the floor and the bed, even though there was no blood pattern on the walls to suggest that Uta might have caused the disarray by stumbling around the room on her own. The blood patterns on Uta’s comforter and sheet showed that Uta struggled “under a restraint.” The bloodstains under the bathroom windowsill and sink were consistent with Uta being pushed into the bathroom with blood on her hands. The lack of hand-transfer bloodstains on Uta’s tank top suggested that she had not removed it herself. And although the defense expert drew different conclusions from this same evidence, the weight to be given to such conflicting expert opinions is solely the province of the jury. See State v. Berchtold, 357 P.2d 183, 186 (Utah 1960).

¶58 As to Uta’s injuries, she sustained defensive wounds on her arms and on the back of one of her legs, suggesting that she tried to defend herself from an attacker. She had hemorrhaging in her neck and petechiae in her eye, each of which is consistent with strangulation. She also had male DNA under her fingernails, which is consistent with scratching an attacker.

¶59 Additional evidence supported the prosecution’s theory that a second person left the home shortly after Uta had been subdued. The blinds in Uta’s bathroom and bedroom—which were normally open—had been shut, and bloody shoeprints in those rooms had been wiped clean, as well as a bloody spot above Uta’s headboard. In the kitchen, which had no blinds, no effort had been made to clean up dried-blood shoeprints. The prints did not match any of the first responders’ or the boyfriend’s shoes. In any event, the reconstructionist testified that Uta’s blood would have dried in the hours between her death and the discovery of her body and that the prints were inconsistent with the later transfer of rehydrated blood. Evidence that someone had tracked fresh blood through the kitchen around the time of Uta’s death and had tried to clean up blood in those rooms where the activity could take place behind closed blinds was strong evidence supporting the jury’s conclusion that Uta was murdered.

¶60 Other evidence further undercut the defense’s theory that Uta’s death was a suicide or accidental overdose. Without exception, the witnesses who knew Uta testified that she was not suicidal. To the contrary, she was excited about a breakthrough at work, was looking forward to an upcoming trip with the younger children, and was making plans up until the night before her death. And although there was a near-lethal dose of Xanax found in Uta’s system, there was no evidence that Uta had ever been prescribed or taken Xanax, and no prescription bottles or labeled film canisters for the drug were found at Uta’s house. In addition, there were no pill remnants in her stomach that would account for the concentration of Xanax in her system, supporting the prosecution’s theory that Uta was either injected with or forced to swallow a slurry containing a high concentration of Xanax.

¶61 Two forensic pathologists reviewed all of the relevant reports from the police, medical practitioners, and the autopsy and testified that the cause of death was homicide. Even the medical examiner, who had been told that Uta’s death was “a probable suicide overdose,” found the evidence to be “more consistent with homicide than anything else,” refused “to call this a suicide,” and “would have certified the death as a homicide” had it not been for the ambiguity created by the Xanax in Uta’s system. The medical examiner’s uncertainty was understandable because, as the crime scene reconstructionist explained, “this scene was a homicide that was staged to look like a suicide.” Based on all of this evidence, a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Uta was murdered.

¶62 There was also sufficient evidence to support the jury’s determination that Wall was the murderer. Wall had a well-established motive to kill Uta. They were involved in an acrimonious ongoing custody dispute, and those familiar with him knew that Wall “despised” Uta. He often complained that she made his “life difficult” and blamed her for his unhappiness. Mere days before Uta’s body was discovered, Wall informed a new acquaintance that he was “getting his kids back.” And after her death, Wall told their youngest son that “maybe it’s better that she’s dead.”

¶63 Wall also had the opportunity to commit the murder. He could not account for his whereabouts around the time of Uta’s death. In his first police interview, Wall told the detectives that he had gone to a gas station near his house to purchase eggs between 6:45 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and then returned home to make breakfast. But his older children indicated that he was already gone when they awoke for school around 6:00 a.m. and had not returned by the time the eldest son left for school at 7:30 a.m. In a deposition more than a year later, he claimed that he woke up early and went to the hospital to work on charts, even though a hospital witness testified that doctors know that they cannot access the medical records office before 8:00 a.m. Wall claimed that he could not access the hospital because he had forgotten his identification and then decided to go on a pre-dawn hike, despite having left no word for his children, as had been his practice. No one could corroborate his whereabouts between the time the children went to bed the night before and 7:05 a.m. the next morning when he was spotted driving his car some distance from his house.[3] He later appeared for work disheveled and wearing the same clothes as the day before as if he had not been home to sleep or get ready for work. Not only did Wall have the time and opportunity to commit the murder, the jury had ample reason to find his evolving story incredible.

¶64 The lack of forced entry at Uta’s home also supported the conclusion that the crime was not committed by a stranger. When Uta’s body was discovered, the door to her house was unlocked, even though Uta always locked it before bed. The eldest son testified that Uta kept a spare key hidden outside the house for the children and that the key was missing after Uta’s death. The jury could reasonably infer that Wall knew of the spare key and used it to enter the house on the night of the murder.

¶65 Wall also had access to the drug used to subdue Uta. In fact, he had recently written a prescription for the highest dose of Xanax, purportedly for his mother who lived in California, although she could not confirm receiving it. The jury could reasonably conclude that Wall filled the prescription at a pharmacy that he had not used before or since (and later feigned ignorance of the drug) to make it harder to link him to the drug he used in the course of killing Uta.

¶66 The jury could also reasonably conclude that Wall’s behavior and statements showed consciousness of guilt. When the police asked him if he killed Uta, he responded with equivocal statements such as, “I don’t know, I don’t think I did it,” “I don’t think I was there,” and “If I did it, I made a mistake, and I am sorry. But I don’t think I did it.” When Wall was released after the police interview, he was surprised and said, “[B]ut I’m a monster.” When he returned home, Wall announced to the children, “Uta’s dead and they think I did it.” Rather than comfort the children, Wall acted “distraught,” curled into the fetal position and cried, and forced the children to take care of him because “he was scared he would do something he would regret.” He kept calling himself a monster and repeatedly asked the children, “What if I did it and I don’t remember?”

¶67 Furthermore, Wall volunteered implausible explanations for physical evidence that might connect him to the crime. Even before Uta’s body was discovered, Wall tried to explain the scratch on his eye by telling everyone that he had recently started sleeping on his porch and that his dog scratched him while he slept. No one ever saw him sleep on the porch, and no one had ever seen the dog scratch anyone. And to those who testified, the scratch to Wall’s eye looked like it was caused by a fingernail. Wall also had scratches on his arms and legs that he quickly covered up when people noticed. When interviewed by police, he was vague about the last time he had seen or touched Uta and whether he might have been in her house around the time of her death. He told the police that his cell phone was stolen from his unsecured car that same day but later asked his eldest son, “If the police found my phone [at Uta’s house] what could I say to refute that?”

¶68 Significantly, Wall offered new explanations when he knew that DNA test results were pending. When he was deposed in the wrongful death lawsuit, Wall offered a new story that would explain why his DNA might be found under Uta’s fingernails. For the first time, Wall claimed that he had not only seen Uta again after picking up the children on the night of her death, but that the two of them had gotten into an altercation and that she had struck him in the face. He also claimed that she had once tried to seduce him in her bedroom, which could explain why his DNA might be found at the crime scene. And Wall took care to mention that Uta had leaned into the back seat of his car the night before her death to give their daughter a hug, touching the part of the seat that the investigators collected to search for DNA evidence, although her DNA ultimately was not found in that sample. The jury could reasonably infer that Wall offered these explanations because he knew that the results of the DNA testing could link him to the crime.

¶69 While this summary is by no means an exhaustive review of all of the evidence supporting Wall’s guilt, it is more than sufficient to demonstrate that the jury’s verdict was supported by substantial evidence. This is not a case in which the evidence was so inconclusive or inherently improbable that it could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The State presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Uta was murdered and that Wall was her murderer.

II. Admissibility of DNA Evidence

¶70 Wall next argues that the district court should have excluded the DNA evidence that was extracted from Uta’s pillowcase because “the State failed to make the threshold showing that [the forensic laboratory’s] methodology was reliable or reliably applied” under rule 702(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Rule 702(b) provides that “[s]cientific, technical or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying the testimony” are “reliable,” “based upon sufficient facts or data,” and “have been reliably applied to the facts.” Utah R. Evid. 702(b).

¶71 In applying rule 702(b), the district court “performs an important gatekeeping function, intended to ensure that only reliable expert testimony will be presented to the jury.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 31, 269 P.3d 980. But this function is “limited” to “ensuring a minimal ‘threshold’ of reliability for the knowledge that serves as the basis of an expert’s opinion” and must not “displace the province of the factfinder to weigh the evidence.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 26, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). Although “the line between assessing reliability and weighing evidence can be elusive,” appellate courts “must be mindful of this important distinction because the factfinder bears the ultimate responsibility for evaluating the accuracy, reliability, and weight of the testimony.” Id. (cleaned up). “When performing their gatekeeping function, judges should approach expert testimony with rational skepticism. But the degree of scrutiny that should be applied to expert testimony by trial judges is not so rigorous as to be satisfied only by scientific or other specialized principles or methods that are free of controversy or that meet any fixed set of criteria fashioned to test reliability.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 32 (cleaned up).

¶72 Before trial, Wall moved to exclude, among other things, the DNA results from the pillowcase, arguing that he “should be excluded as a possible contributor” because some alleles were missing from the sample and because the “statistical probability” calculated by the forensic laboratory was unreliable. The district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the evidence and expert testimony met the minimum threshold of reliability necessary for its admission.

¶73 At that hearing, the court heard testimony from two experts from the forensic laboratory that conducted the DNA tests and one expert for the defense. All of the experts testified to DNA composition in general and forensic DNA testing. DNA is made up of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and is found in most cells of the human body. Twenty-two of the chromosomal pairs control non-sex traits (autosomal) and the twenty-third chromosome is sex determining—either male or female. Except for identical twins, no person has the same DNA as another person. But only one percent of human DNA differs from person to person based on short tandem repeats (STRs), which are patterns of alleles at a certain locus within human DNA. “At each given locus, you would expect to see two alleles because you get one from your mother and one from your father.” But sometimes there is only one allele at a given locus, which occurs “when you get the same [allele] from both your mother and your father.” Forensic DNA analysts focus on these patterns to discover the identity of the source of the DNA.

¶74 When conducting an autosomal STR analysis, as was done in this case, the forensic analyst targets sixteen of the individualized STR locations along the twenty-two autosomal chromosomes. There are five steps to the test: extraction, quantification (determining how much DNA was isolated at the targeted sixteen loci), amplification (creating copies of the DNA sample by splitting the DNA “ladder” down the middle and re-bonding the DNA to create a sufficient number of copies of the sample for testing), the actual testing (using florescent dye and an electrophoresis machine), and analysis.

¶75 The experts further explained that, during the testing stage, the analyst injects the DNA with fluorescent dye and runs it through an electrophoresis machine, which measures the alleles’ fluorescence in “relative fluorescence units” (RFUs). Then, a software program creates a graph of this data and shows the “peaks” of each allele (i.e., the strength of the fluorescence) at the sixteen tested loci. The peaks will appear taller or shorter depending on how much DNA is present at that allele and a taller peak means it “has more DNA.” If an allele reaches a peak of fifty RFUs, then it has reached the “analytical threshold” and the analyst can rely on that as a match of alleles on that locus between the crime-scene sample and the possible-contributor sample. If an allele’s peak is below fifty RFUs, it is unclear whether the allele represents DNA or “background noise.”

¶76 After providing this background, the analysts from the forensic laboratory (the State’s experts) then testified directly to the DNA samples and comparisons in this case. Relevant to the sample collected from the pillowcase using the M-Vac process,[4] the State’s experts found that Wall’s entire autosomal STR profile was present in that sample, but that three of the alleles were detected below the analytical threshold. Because three alleles did not meet the analytical threshold, the State’s experts followed the laboratory’s policy to conduct a second amplification test to see if the results were reproduced. The second test produced the same results,[5] and the analysts determined that Wall could not be excluded as a possible contributor because a “repeat” event “gives more credence or reliability to that event.” The State’s experts explained that a finding that a person cannot be excluded as a possible contributor does not mean that the person is an “actual” contributor. The defense’s expert disagreed with the laboratory’s policy to retest the sample and concluded that any DNA sample with an allele that does not reach the analytical threshold should amount to an exclusion of the individual as a possible contributor to the sample.

¶77 Following the hearing, the court issued a detailed written order denying Wall’s motion to exclude the evidence. The court explained that although the director of the forensic laboratory determined that there was “questionable activity” with respect to alleles on three loci within the DNA sample, it is the laboratory’s policy “not to disregard it.” Instead, the director determined that these results showed that Wall could not be excluded as a possible contributor to the DNA sample because the three loci where the alleles were recorded “below the analytic threshold at the points where [Wall’s] alleles should have been” showed that “it is possible these loci could contain” Wall’s alleles based on the results of the repeat amplification. The court found that many laboratories have similar policies and that this particular laboratory’s “policy has been subjected to third party assessment and has been approved by auditing companies and at least one previous director of the lab.” The court explained that although there was conflicting expert testimony from the State and the defense regarding the reliability of the results of this DNA sample, it was “not the court’s role to decide which expert is correct,” and the court determined that Wall’s “objection to this evidence is a matter of weight rather than reliability.” The court concluded that the State “made a threshold showing of reliability” and admitted the evidence.

¶78 On appeal, Wall asserts that the forensic laboratory’s “director . . . testified that the [laboratory’s] method of including [Wall] as a possible contributor was unreliable.” But as articulated above, the director testified that data below the analytical threshold is “not reliable” with respect to conclusively including or excluding an individual for statistical purposes, but that the laboratory is “not going to put blinders on and just completely ignore it.” This is because the presence of “some activity” or “amplification” at these loci shows that something is “detected.” The director explained that ignoring the below-threshold information with respect to certain alleles and excluding an individual as a possible contributor can make “exclusion inaccurate.”

¶79 Wall also asserts that the “State did not demonstrate that . . . [the laboratory’s] methods were reliable and reliably applied to include [Wall] as a possible contributor.” But the district court made specific findings that the laboratory’s policy against excluding a person where a possible match is detected below analytical thresholds is consistent with the practice of other laboratories and that recent audits and third-party assessments have approved this policy. The district court acted well within its discretion in relying on this evidence to conclude that the laboratory’s methods met the minimum threshold of reliability.

¶80 We therefore conclude that Wall has not shown that the district court exceeded its discretion when it admitted the DNA evidence and expert testimony under rule 702(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence.

III. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶81 Finally, Wall argues that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the prosecutors’ statements in closing argument that he asserts misconstrued the DNA evidence.[6] To prove that trial counsel was ineffective, Wall must show that trial “counsel’s performance was deficient, in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonable professional judgment,” and “that counsel’s deficient performance was prejudicial.” State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 19, 12 P.3d 92; see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687–88 (1984). The “failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.” State v. Torres, 2018 UT App 113, ¶ 14, 427 P.3d 550 (cleaned up). Consequently, “there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim . . . to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697. Here, Wall has not shown that his counsel performed deficiently.

¶82 When we review a claim of deficient performance, we “presume[] that counsel has rendered adequate assistance,” and “if the challenged act or omission might be considered sound trial strategy, we will not find that it demonstrates inadequacy of counsel.” State v. Kingston, 2002 UT App 103, ¶ 8, 46 P.3d 761 (cleaned up). “When we review an attorney’s failure to object to a prosecutor’s statements during closing argument, the question is not whether the prosecutor’s comments were proper, but whether they were so improper that counsel’s only defensible choice was to interrupt those comments with an objection.” State v. Houston, 2015 UT 40, ¶ 76, 353 P.3d 55 (cleaned up). This is because “counsel for both sides have considerable latitude in their closing arguments. They have the right to fully discuss from their perspectives the evidence and all inferences and deductions it supports.” Id. (cleaned up). “Moreover, a prosecutor has the duty and right to argue the case based on the total picture shown by the evidence.” Id. (cleaned up). Through this lens, we review the three points in the State’s closing arguments to which Wall claims any reasonably competent trial counsel would have lodged an objection.

¶83 First, Wall challenges a statement made by the prosecutor in the first part of the State’s closing arguments. The prosecutor stated, “We have male DNA being found under [Uta’s] right-hand fingernail clippings. I would submit to you it was as if [Uta] was standing in this courtroom and pointing to [Wall] as her killer.” Wall argues that this statement violated the court’s order related to DNA evidence, which informed the parties that they could not use the DNA evidence to show conclusively that he was the contributor to the DNA, and therefore trial counsel was deficient in failing to object to it. The prosecutor correctly noted that male DNA was found under Uta’s fingernail, not that Wall’s DNA was underneath her fingernail, but essentially told the jury that the reasonable inference was that Wall’s DNA was under Uta’s fingernail. Assuming without deciding that this statement was improper, trial counsel may have based his decision to forgo an objection on sound trial strategy, choosing instead to undermine the State’s characterization of the fingernail-DNA evidence in his own closing argument.[7] This is exactly what trial counsel did. Trial counsel argued that the DNA evidence was “just meaningless,” it “doesn’t prove anything” because Wall was excluded as a possible contributor to some of the DNA samples, the DNA test results were “unreliable,” and the DNA evidence “doesn’t put [Wall] in [Uta’s] house.” We therefore conclude counsel was not deficient in failing to object to the State’s characterization of the fingernail-DNA evidence. See State v. King, 2012 UT App 203, ¶ 14, 283 P.3d 980 (explaining that counsel performs deficiently only where there is no “conceivable tactical basis for counsel’s actions” (cleaned up)).

¶84 Next, Wall argues that in the State’s rebuttal closing argument, the prosecutor improperly told the jury that it was in a better position to determine Uta’s cause of death because the medical examiner who wrote the report “didn’t know about all the DNA work” and that counsel should have objected to that statement. The challenged statement was a direct response to statements made by Wall’s trial counsel in his closing argument. Specifically, Wall’s counsel made the following argument:

Here’s the part you guys have been waiting for, the conclusion. There’s been a lot of evidence introduced here. And we’ve heard a lot of evidence about the relationship of two people, about their lives, their mental states, their problems. You’ve heard a lot of evidence about forensics, about shoe identification, blood stains and pathology. But the most critical testimony in this case, the most critical input came from the state medical examiner.

He went on to explain that the medical examiner’s testimony was key because it “indicated that [Uta’s death] was either a homicide or suicide” and that the medical examiner’s “opinions were affected by the presence of Xanax in [Uta’s] body.” The defense theory was that the medical examiner’s inability to conclude one way or the other “establishe[d] reasonable doubt.”

¶85 In rebuttal, the prosecutor opened with the following response:

I’d like to start first with the last thing that was said [in trial counsel’s closing argument], the critical piece of evidence was the medical examiner. And I want you to remember what the medical examiner said because you all have a better position than he did when he wrote that report. He said he didn’t have [Uta’s] medical and mental health records. He didn’t know about all the DNA work. He didn’t know about all the witnesses that [testified]. You, ladies and gentlemen, know more about this case than he did when he wrote his report . . . . You know everything. You know all the witnesses who said she was not suicidal, that she didn’t do this. And so you can confidently find this individual guilty.

¶86 The prosecutor’s statement that the medical examiner “didn’t know about all the DNA work” is an accurate characterization of the evidence. The medical examiner testified that he did not have all of Uta’s medical records, all of the police reports or witness statements, the crime scene reconstructionist’s report, the bloodstain expert reports, or “any of the DNA reports that had been done.” Moreover, the prosecutor’s statement did not suggest, as Wall claims, that the DNA evidence alone conclusively established that Uta had been murdered. Instead, the prosecutor pointed to “everything” the jury heard during the trial that the medical examiner did not know, including not just the DNA evidence, but also information about Uta’s medical and mental health records and the testimony of numerous witnesses offered during the four-week trial. In context, the prosecutor’s argument neither misstated the evidence nor overemphasized the importance of the admittedly inconclusive DNA evidence. As a result, any objection made by trial counsel to this statement would have been futile and did not constitute deficient performance. See State v. Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7, 131 P.3d 864 (“It is well settled that counsel’s performance at trial is not deficient if counsel refrains from making futile objections, motions, or requests.”).

¶87 Wall also argues that trial counsel should have objected to the prosecutor’s statements about DNA found on Uta’s comforter. One of the forensic laboratory’s analysts testified that the laboratory collected DNA using different methods on five areas of Uta’s comforter and submitted them for testing. Four of the test results either excluded Wall or were inconclusive for male DNA. The fifth test included Wall as possible contributor. The analyst also conceded on cross-examination that, based on the results of the test, all four children’s alleles are accounted for [and Wall’s] alleles are accounted for” in that sample. Wall contends that the prosecutor erroneously “insisted the DNA must be from [Wall] rather than the Wall children” because the State mischaracterized how the DNA samples were collected from the comforter when it said that the DNA came from “pinpoint location[s].”

¶88 As an initial matter, we note that trial counsel moved to exclude all of the DNA evidence prior to trial based on “inaccurate statistical evidence for DNA mixtures” but later withdrew that motion with respect to the DNA collected from Uta’s comforter. Trial counsel chose instead to advance the theory at trial—through the defense’s own expert testimony and through cross-examination of the State’s experts—that there was a “possibility of all of the children being [contributors]” to some of the DNA samples, including the comforter, and therefore “it’s impossible to determine if [Wall’s] DNA is in that sample.” Trial counsel reiterated this point in closing argument:

Now [the State] is probably going to talk to you about if [Wall’s] and [Uta’s] allele charts are both present, if their genetic patterns are both there, then all the kids are going to be there too. Use your common sense. You have four kids living in the house and [Uta] living in the house . . . . Whose DNA is going to be on the comforter? The people living in the house.

. . . .

And if you remember the hypothetical that I gave to [the State’s expert] that if all the children used the towel when they’d been out hiking or sweating and had DNA placed in the towel . . . to a sufficient degree that it could be tested, that even if [Wall] was in Australia, . . . he would be found to be a possible contributor.

¶89 In the State’s rebuttal closing argument, the prosecutor reminded the jury that the two eldest children testified they had “never been on [Uta’s] bed for a long time . . . [s]o their DNA won’t be there.” He also said that the DNA was not “all over the comforter” and was instead at “a very pinpoint location.” He further explained:

That’s where you are going to find [Wall’s] DNA. And it’s not going to be because the children were there, because you need to have all four children to be on that same spot. And you’re going to tell me that at these particular locations all four children went and equally touched that spot to make that combination? That’s ridiculous. The more likely and the real reasonable is that one person touched it, and it’s [Wall].

¶90 It is unclear why trial counsel would be deficient for failing to object to the very argument that he forecasted for the jury in his own closing argument. Trial counsel had already presented a counterargument to the State’s theory by providing the jury an alternative explanation for why certain DNA samples could have included Wall’s DNA without Wall having ever touched the relevant items. And trial counsel reiterated at many points throughout trial and in closing argument that the DNA evidence was “meaningless” because Wall was excluded as a possible contributor to some of the DNA samples and that he should have been excluded as a possible contributor to other DNA samples because the laboratory’s methods were “unreliable.” Trial counsel’s strategy related to this DNA evidence was clear, and his strategic decision not to object to the State’s alternative characterization of this same evidence was not deficient.

¶91 Further, any objection to the prosecutor’s statement would have been futile. See Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7. Just as trial counsel was free to argue that it was more reasonable that the children’s DNA had combined on the comforter to create a sample that happened to be consistent with Wall’s DNA, the State was free to argue that it was more likely that a single person, Wall, was the contributor. See Houston, 2015 UT 40, ¶ 76 (recognizing that “counsel for both sides have considerable latitude in their closing arguments,” that “they have the right to fully discuss from their perspectives the evidence and all inferences and deductions it supports,” and that the State has “the duty and right to argue the case based on the total picture shown by the evidence” (cleaned up)).

¶92 Relatedly, Wall has not persuaded us that trial counsel was deficient in failing to object to the prosecutor’s statement that the DNA was extracted at a “pinpoint location” and that all of the children would have had to touch that exact spot. The State’s expert testified that the DNA was collected via M-Vac only on the locations where there were bloodstains. Thus, the samples were not drawn from the entire comforter, as Wall suggests. And trial counsel could have reasonably determined that objecting would have been futile and would have drawn greater attention to that evidence. See Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7; see also State v. Ott, 2010 UT 1, ¶ 39, 247 P.3d 344 (noting “that avoidance of drawing the jury’s attention to certain facts or over-emphasizing aspects of the facts is a well recognized trial strategy”).

¶93 “The object of an ineffectiveness claim is not to grade counsel’s performance.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 697 (1984). Instead, we “must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. In this case, Wall has not shown “that the challenged actions cannot be considered sound strategy under the circumstances.” See State v. Torres, 2018 UT App 113, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 550 (cleaned up).

CONCLUSION

¶94 We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support Wall’s murder conviction. We further conclude that the district court did not exceed its discretion in admitting certain DNA evidence because the State made the threshold showing that the forensic laboratory’s methods and policies were reliable. Finally, Wall has not persuaded us that his trial counsel performed deficiently in failing to object to certain parts of the State’s closing arguments because the State did not mischaracterize the evidence and the arguments fairly responded to the theories argued by the defense.

¶95 Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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[1] “This court typically does not include the names of crime victims, witnesses, or other innocent parties in its decisions. We make an exception in this case due to the considerable notoriety this criminal episode has attracted. The [victim’s] identity is well known, and obscuring her identity in this decision would serve no purpose.” State v. Chavez-Reyes, 2015 UT App 202, ¶ 2 n.2, 357 P.3d 1012. Additionally, although we generally refer to relevant parties by their last names, we will refer to the victim in this case as Uta because that is how all of the witnesses referred to her at trial.

[2] Wall claimed to have told Uta’s father, but Uta’s father had died before Uta and therefore could not corroborate this claim.

[3] On appeal, Wall makes much of the fact that the autopsy report did not document any changes to Uta’s skin, known as “washerwoman syndrome,” from having been immersed in water for a long period of time. Wall argues that the absence of such evidence conclusively proves that Uta’s death occurred shortly before her body was found in the evening rather than during the early morning hours when Wall had no alibi. But the medical examiner testified that, although he did not note washerwoman changes in his report, he had not been looking for them because the death had not been presented as a possible homicide. And there was conflicting testimony from defense and State experts about whether washerwoman changes could be seen in the autopsy photographs. The jury could reasonably conclude that the apparent absence of washerwoman syndrome was entitled to less weight than the defense believed it deserved.

[4] According to expert testimony, “[a]n M-Vac is basically like a DNA wet vac[uum]” that has a “buffer” in it that will not degrade or harm the DNA sample. The M-Vac soaks the targeted area and then “sucks up the liquid.” The liquid is “run through a series of filters” to extract the DNA from the targeted area for forensic analysis.

[5] One of the alleles that was above the analytical threshold in the first test was below the threshold in the second test. But the State’s experts explained in great detail why this could occur and why it did not undermine their confidence in that allele.

[6] In his opening brief, Wall argued that trial counsel was also ineffective for failing to object to certain statements elicited on direct examination of the State’s expert witnesses. But at oral argument, appellate counsel conceded that “the issue about the DNA is all about closing argument and closing argument only.” This court asked the clarifying question, “Your [ineffective assistance of counsel claim] is failure to object during closing arguments, not the failure to object during the expert testimony?” And appellate counsel responded, “That’s right.” We therefore do not address whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object during direct examination of the State’s expert witnesses.

[7] At oral argument, this court asked, “Why wouldn’t it be reasonable to wait and rebut the prosecutor’s statements during the defense’s closing argument rather than object?” And appellate counsel responded, “So far I’m with you,” apparently conceding that failing to object to this statement alone was not sufficient to establish deficient performance.

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