The presumption of a defendant’s innocence is guaranteed in criminal court by the US Constitution. And prosecutors must ultimately prove their case against the criminal defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.
But not in family court. There, the most important rights to be protected are those of the children. At least in Florida, the court is supposed to act in the children’s best interests. And the burden of proof is much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
But in the article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal below, it appears that a Nevada father’s rights in a family court child custody case were protected as though he were in criminal court – at the ultimate, tragic expense of his young son’s life.
August 31, 2005
NV Judge criticized after boy’s suicide
A 12-year-old boy who fatally shot himself in Henderson on Friday was the subject of a custody dispute in which a judge was repeatedly warned that the child was surrounded by loaded, unsecured guns, according to court records.
Syber Wells was found shot to death at his father’s Henderson home on Friday.
According to taped Family Court proceedings obtained by the Review-Journal, Judge Cheryl Moss was warned in April that Syber Wells and his two younger brothers, ages 10 and 8, were exposed to the unsecured firearms while in the custody of their father, Geoffrey Wells, 36.
The children’s mother, Maria Wells, said Tuesday she even videotaped the guns at her estranged husband’s home to prove to the judge that the children were in danger.
But when Geoffrey Wells maintained that the guns were secured and that the children were part of a military family trained in gun safety, Moss agreed to give Geoffrey and Maria Wells joint legal custody of the three children.
‘I don’t see a problem with the gun issues,’ Moss said. ‘As long as the kids are, I guess they’re trained as a military family, grow up like that, it’s kind of a unique situation.’
On Friday, Syber Wells was discovered dead at the home on Basic Street, Henderson police said. The child died from a gunshot wound to the head. Henderson police officer Todd Rasmussen declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.
But Maria Wells said police told her they found unsecured firearms throughout her estranged husband’s house, and that her son committed suicide.
‘They told me they found guns everywhere,’ Maria Wells said.
Maria Wells went on to say that Moss should have never put the children in her estranged husband’s custody given the prior warnings about the weapons.
‘Every court hearing we had, we discussed it,’ Maria Wells said. ‘I had videotapes of guns laying around the house, and everyone seemed to ignore it.
‘She screwed up,’ Maria Wells said. ‘She didn’t address the issue.’
Moss did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Court spokesman Michael Sommermeyer said Moss is prevented by Nevada judicial cannons from discussing pending court cases.
Geoffrey Wells could not be reached because a phone to his home has been disconnected. His attorney, Gerard Bongiovanni, did not respond to a request for comment left at his office on Tuesday.
According to the videotaped court proceedings, Geoffrey and Maria Wells were involved in a heated custody dispute over the three children. The dispute included allegations of domestic violence on both sides and financial mismanagement.
Moss, in making her custody ruling in April, said she had no definitive proof of domestic violence by either parent.
‘I don’t have any arrests. I don’t have any drugs, alcohol,’ Moss said.
Moss also noted that she would continue to examine the custody status of the children as more reports from court appointed experts were received.
The judge also recognized that there was a great deal of acrimony between the parents of the children.
‘There’s really some bad blood,’ the judge said, adding Maria Wells’ family ‘really don’t like Geoff.’
During the same hearing, Maria Wells’ attorney, Randall Roske, told the judge that Geoffrey Wells’ gun collection was excessive, and the guns were unsecured.
‘The guy has an arsenal of guns. … He has been recklessly spending money to build up, I don’t know what,’ Roske said. ‘This guy thinks he’s going to be a survivalist in the middle of Henderson.
‘He’s got all these guns … like someone, some army is going to have a commando operation on his home,’ Roske said.
Roske said Tuesday he, too, believes the gun issue was not adequately addressed. ‘She brushed it aside,’ Roske said.
Maria Wells said her 10-year-old son was the one who found his brother’s body. She also said the children were home alone with no baby sitter, shortly before 7 a.m., at the time of the shooting.
‘They are traumatized,’ she said of her surviving sons. ‘They are going to counseling.’
Rasmussen said once the police investigation is complete, the case will be forwarded to the Clark County district attorney’s office for review to determine whether ‘anything criminal occurred.’
The criticism of Moss is just the latest for the judge.
Earlier this year, attorney Randy Rumph, who represents himself in a child custody case, alleged that Moss gives preferential treatment to lawyers who have donated to her campaigns, including his ex-wife’s lawyer. Two of Moss’ former law clerks, Lucien Cravens and Marvin Santamaria, signed affidavits supporting Rumph’s allegation of favoritism, but Moss has denied any wrongdoing.
‘Unhappy litigants will do or say anything, no matter how outrageous, to get press coverage as a means to manipulate the judicial system,’ Moss said when first asked about Rumph’s allegations.
In 2003, the Review-Journal detailed how a Las Vegas sailor, James Denson II, had lost custody of his 8-year-old daughter because of a ruling by Moss.
Moss made the decision after Denson did not show up in court for a hearing. What the judge did not know was that Denson had been deployed to Kuwait for operation Iraqi Freedom.
Moss recused herself from the case, and another judge ended up reversing her order.
For educational purposes only and not intended to infringe on Copyright 2005 DR Partners d/b Las Vegas Review-Journal Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada)