Mother guilty of slaying faces custody appeal Woman who admitted killing infant daughter was to get her son back

August 26, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court agreed yesterday to hear an appeal of a Montgomery County judge's decision to return a toddler to his mother, who admitted killing her infant daughter in 1992.

The Court of Appeals set oral arguments for December in the emotionally charged case that has rallied adoption advocates.

Attorneys for Latrena Pixley, whose prospects of regaining her 2-year-old son within weeks were tugged away by yesterday's decision, could not be reached. She had won in Montgomery County Circuit Court, which refused to end her parental rights in favor of an adoption. The Court of Special Appeals upheld that decision last month.

Her lawyers have said she is a different person than she was in 1992 -- better educated and employed, for example.

Lawyers for Cornilous, the toddler, and Laura Blankman, the Montgomery County police officer trying to adopt the boy she has cared for since he was 4 months old, had challenged the intermediate appeals court opinion. They could not be reached yesterday.

Court rulings in this case have created controversy over when, and if, a parent convicted of killing a child can be entrusted with another child and whether state law excessively favors biological parents.

Maryland law was changed this spring in response to changes last year in federal law. The amended state law says judges asked to terminate parental rights must consider whether the parent was convicted of a crime of violence against any person who resides in the household. Previously, consideration focused on whether the child in question was abused, though it included numerous other factors, including what is in the child's best interest and what are the interests of the biological parents.

Yesterday's decision buoyed adoption advocates, who have maintained that the lower court rulings defied common sense.

"It stretches the imagination to say that a child who is abused and alive would be a factor in a case, but a child who was abused and not alive is no longer a factor," said William L. Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption.

Cary W. Mergele, an attorney for the organization, said that could mean that if both children were alive with custody pending before the court, the judge could apply two standards -- one for the child who was abused and one for the child who was not.

The Center for the Community Interest, which filed a brief on behalf of the council and two other organizations, was similarly delighted to win another forum for the case.

But adoption lawyers who have an interest in -- but no ties to -- this case said last month that they thought the law was tipped in Pixley's favor, and they noted that trial judges have broad discretion.

In March 1993, Pixley, then 19, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in District of Columbia Superior Court for smothering her 44-day-old daughter, Nakya. Pixley blamed the crime on postpartum depression.

She was placed on probation and ordered to spend weekends in jail.

Four months after Cornilous was born in 1996, she was convicted of credit card fraud in federal court and sent to prison.

Blankman became the baby's temporary caretaker.

In February 1997, Blankman petitioned Montgomery County Circuit Court for adoption. Pixley, continuing to visit with Cornilous, fought it. A Montgomery County judge ruled that she met all the criteria for having her child returned to her.

She recently moved to a different halfway house so that she could have her son with her. She does not have custody of her two other children.

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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