Grandfather seeks custody in battle over parental rights of murderer Adoption struggle pits Baltimore man against daughter's killer

April 30, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Arielle Leah Davenport was just 19 days old when her father stabbed her mother 83 times, killing her.

Now, months after the July slaying, Arielle's maternal grandfather wants to be declared her legal guardian, and eventually adopt her.

But the killer, Anthony Lee Davenport -- awaiting sentencing on a first-degree murder conviction -- does not want to give her up completely.

His opposition -- which illustrates the fallout of domestic violence -- has made Arielle the focus of an emotional and legal tug-of-war. At stake are visitation rights and other parental prerogatives, and lawyers say severing Davenport's ties to the girl might not be as easy as expected.

"I'm so upset about that I don't know what to do," says the grandfather, Bennie Cooper, 56, who doesn't want Arielle visiting or associating with Davenport.

The day that Katanya Denise Davenport, 30, was murdered, Mr. Cooper took baby Arielle and Tamara Fisher, the victim's other daughter from a previous relationship, to his house on Northwood Drive in Northeast Baltimore. He has cared for them ever since.

Tamara's father lives in New York and they have a close relationship, so Mr. Cooper is not seeking to adopt her.

For Arielle, now 9 months old, he has set up a crib in his bedroom. Her blanket and stuffed animals compete for space with his tie rack and cologne bottles. On one wall is a plastic sign that says: "Lord help me hang in there."

Mr. Cooper, a widower, takes care of the baby in the evening after working as a parking control agent for the city. His daughter Benita, 22, a Morgan State University student on leave of absence, cares for her during the day.

In November, he contacted an attorney about becoming Arielle's legal guardian so he could make decisions for her and assume responsibility for his slain daughter's life insurance policy. The attorney drafted papers to appoint Mr. Cooper guardian, a step to be taken before an adoption.

'Still a part of me'

Davenport's reply by letter stated that he would give up custody temporarily. But he added, "Permit me to say that I have a problem with relinquishing all of my God giving parental rights. . . . She is still a part of me and I care about knowing her growth."

The law protects people in Davenport's position. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the child's best interest must be taken into account in adoption decisions, so cases such as this must be considered one by one.

"You can be a great parent to your child but to the rest of the world be a loser," says lawyer Daniel J. Bartolini, who handles many adoption cases. "Just because he's in prison doesn't mean [he] couldn't go through civil courts [and] file for reasonable visitation."

Help from new law

In some states, including Oregon and Alabama, parents who were incarcerated for killing a spouse have lost parental rights in adoptions occurring without their consent. And a new Maryland law may have some impact on Mr. Cooper's efforts.

The law, which took effect in October, states that parental rights can be suspended when one parent commits a violent crime against the other and is sentenced to more than 10 years. Adoptions can occur when parental ties have been severed.

"Prior to this law, [prisoners] could refuse to consent to the adoption -- continue to request hearings," says Sen. C. Edward Middlebrooks, an Anne Arundel County Republican who sponsored the measure.

Potential difficulties

Still, adoption is not a sure thing, says Mr. Bartolini.

Mr. Cooper "has to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parental rights should be foreclosed, terminated, ended," he says. Courts must consider the contact Davenport maintains, whether he offers support, and what would be best for Arielle.

"That's what the grandfather is up against, and I'm sympathetic, because it's a fairly heavy burden," Mr. Bartolini says.

If visitation rights are granted, Davenport -- who did not respond to a letter asking for comment and who has not contacted Mr. Cooper since being imprisoned -- would have to arrange for someone to bring Arielle to prison.

None of his wife's relatives would be willing. Mr. Cooper, who is waiting until Davenport's May 8 sentencing before taking further court action, says, "It would be awfully hard for one of us to go down there and see him playing with the baby after the way he did the baby's mama."

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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