Cornilous Pixley's fate is once again in the hands of a Montgomery County judge as attorneys delivered closing arguments yesterday in a case that will determine whether the little boy stays with the woman who has raised him for most of his life or is returned to his mother despite her guilty plea in the 1992 murder of a baby daughter.
Circuit Court Judge Louise G. Scrivener said she does not expect to make a ruling until January, citing the complexity of a custody case that has been in and out of Maryland courts for more than two years.
At the heart of the case is whether the court would be exposing Cornilous, 3, to the risk of abuse or neglect if it awards custody to Latrena Pixley, a District woman who is his biological mother. In addition to smothering 6-week-old Nakya to death in 1992 during what a psychiatrist said was postpartum depression, Pixley was convicted in 1996 of credit card fraud. When she was jailed on that charge, she asked Laura Blankman to care for Cornilous. Blankman, a Montgomery County police officer, later began proceedings to adopt him.
All sides agree that Pixley--a high-school dropout who grew up with parents who abused drugs and alcohol, once attempted suicide and had her first child at age 15--has sought self-improvement since she was released from jail. Yet they do not agree that she has improved her condition to the point where she should get custody.
Julie S. Dietrich, the lawyer who has represented Cornilous for the past two years, argued that Scrivener should award permanent custody to Blankman, 29, and ensure that Pixley, 26, maintains the weekly visits she now has with her son. She cited the turnaround that Pixley has sought to make in her life--finding employment, maintaining a well-kept apartment, seeking counseling--but said it was still too little.
"She doesn't have a track record yet of proving herself to be stable," Dietrich said. On the other hand, she added, "Miss Blankman has proven herself for three years and eight months."
Dietrich and Blankman's attorneys said the judge should give strong consideration to the testimony of J. Burke Mealy, a court-appointed psychologist who testified at the start of the trial that he believed giving custody to Pixley would inject the risk of neglect into the boy's future.
Neither Mealy nor any other of the experts who testified in the trial, however, said they believed that Pixley would physically abuse the boy. They said the relationship she has built with Cornilous during her weekly visits is one of mutual love and affection. Experts called by Pixley's side said they believed she would not pose a risk to the child if she got custody.
Jennifer Evans, one of Pixley's two attorneys in the case, challenged Mealy's conclusion that her client could neglect the child, calling his evaluation "incomplete and unreliable." Evans argued that Mealy's tests and observations in the case were biased toward Blankman, in part because they did not adequately consider Blankman's own history of therapy.
Evans said Nakya's murder was an isolated incident due to postpartum depression, and called Pixley's involvement in the credit card fraud a case of poor judgment, but not a reason to deny custody.
She accused Blankman of befriending Pixley in the months before Cornilous was born in order to eventually get custody of the baby because she knew of Pixley's troubled past, and that her other two sons were not in her custody. It is an allegation that Blankman's attorneys have denied. Evans also accused Blankman of making significant, unilateral decisions on Cornilous's church membership and preschool. And she said Blankman started calling herself "Mommy" in front of Cornilous before he could speak, even though she never has had permanent custody of the child.
"She is a part of his life," Evans said of Pixley. "Miss Blankman has not wanted to accept that." Pixley's attorneys said she would not have a comment before a final ruling is made in the case. Blankman made a brief statement at the end of yesterday's arguments.
"I'm glad it's over. I love Cornilous very much," she said. "I have confidence that the judge will do what is best for him."
Two years ago, Blankman's initial adoption bid was denied by Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason, who awarded custody to Pixley. Mason's ruling was overturned this year by the Maryland Court of Appeals, sending the case back to Circuit Court.