Oakland judge's ruling on alleged killer's sisters reversed
The Michigan Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s decision that dismissed a request from a state agency for temporary wardship of two siblings whose teenage brother is charged with killing their mother in her Farmington Hills home.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the appeals court said it found several errors in how the case was handled by Judge Victoria Valentine of Oakland County Circuit Court. Among them: not considering prior domestic violence incidents, including one in which one of the girls testified that her mother was so frightened of their father that she made the girl sleep in their bed between them.
The three judges who issued the ruling ordered that the case be returned to the Oakland County court and assigned to another judge, citing criticism from Valentine about the Michigan Department of Human Services and the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office.
Teenager Muhammad Altantawi is charged with throwing his mother’s body out of a third-story window of their home and, police believe, staging it as an accident on Aug. 21, 2017. He was 16 at the time and two sisters, aged 14 and 12, were also in the home.
There was a history of domestic violence in the home, which investigators suspect may have played a role in the death of Nada Huranieh, 35. State authorities felt it was inappropriate for Muhammad’s two younger sisters to be placed with their father. Bassel Altantawi, who had been previously precluded from having unsupervised contact with all the children during the couple’s divorce proceedings.
Several months after Huranieh's death, DHHS and the prosecutor’s office petitioned to have temporary care of the two sisters — one of whom was the first to find her mother’s lifeless body — placed with the state pending the outcome of the criminal case.
But in October 2018, Valentine dismissed the petition and criticized DHHS and the prosecutor’s office, even questioning their motivation in the child protective proceeding.
A portion of a transcript within the appeals court's opinion said Valentine accused officials of being more concerned with potential witnesses in the pending murder trial than helping the girls. Valentine said one of the sisters was being used as a “pawn” and officials were trying to use her court as a “Witness Protection Program.”
“Clearly, the court expressed an unflattering view of both the prosecutor’s office and the DHHS and their motivation for pursuing the temporary wardship,” concluded the three-judge appeals panel, consisting of Thomas C. Cameron; Jane E. Markey and Stephen L. Borrello.
‘"Considering the nature of the accusations leveled against the prosecutor and petitioner, the assigned judge would have substantial difficulty putting out of her mind previously expressed views. For that reason, reassignment to a different trial judge is warranted on remand.
“We reverse the trial court’s order dismissing the petition, remand for entry of an order adjudicating the children as temporary wards of the court, and order that the case be reassigned to a different judge for disposition and further proceedings.”
Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Paul Walton said his office felt the court ruled appropriately but declined to discuss the ramifications of the case or the pending murder trial.
“This (protection proceeding) has always been about the safety of the girls, nothing else,” Walton said. “There is still litigation pending on this so we don’t have a lot to say at this time.”
Valentine had said there was insufficient evidence that the children’s father had ever failed to provide proper care or custody for them and dismissed a petition from their mother’s divorce attorney, Robert J. Zivian, to exercise jurisdiction over the children.
Zivian declined comment Friday.
In an ordered appearance before the appeals court, Zivian made statements regarding Bassel Altantawi’s actions during custody hearings that dovetailed with anxiety expressed by the girls. The appeals court said he supplied information that Valentine should have considered.
“Zivian explained that respondent was openly hostile to mother during this meeting, refusing to look at her and commenting that she was no longer human because she declined to wear a hijab, which caused Zivian to fear for mother’s continued safety,” the appeals judges said.
One of the girls also told Valentine, “I would see what he would do when he would get mad at my mom and think maybe if I’m a little older will he do the same thing to me.”
The girl said the day after her mother’s death, her father refused to return her cell phone after he used it to speak with her maternal grandmother. She said during the argument he threatened to destroy her phone in the same manner she had heard him threaten her mother in the past.
Walton said Altantawi’s trial has been stayed pending a hearing before the Court of Appeals on the admissibility of statements he made to Farmington Hills detectives regarding what happened in the house the morning of his mother's death.
The teenager provided different versions of events during the interview and his defense attorney believes that because of several factors, including his age, his statements should not go before a jury. The appeals court is expected to take up the legal question next month.
Altantawi remains in the Oakland County Children's Village, where he has been incarcerated since August 2017.