An appellate court Thursday reinstated a felony child-stealing charge against Betty Lou Batey, a fundamentalist Christian convicted of civil contempt in 1984 for spiriting her teen-age son from his homosexual father, touching off a bitter custody battle between the divorced parents.
In a 2-1 decision authored by Presiding Justice Daniel J. Kremer, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Superior Court Judge Earl J. Maas Jr., who heard the felony child-stealing charge against her, erred when he dismissed it on grounds that Batey, 41, was a victim of double jeopardy. In January, 1985, Maas denied attempts by prosecutors to bring the charge, ruling that the elements of civil and criminal (felony) contempt were identical, as was the evidence presented by the prosecution.
The San Diego County district attorney's office appealed and Maas was reversed. The court's majority, in a 15-page ruling, found that Batey's civil contempt conviction stemmed from a lawsuit initiated by her former husband, Frank Batey, 42.
"The proceedings were initiated by a private plaintiff, were not prosecuted by the People, and were captioned as a civil proceeding," said the court's ruling.
Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell convicted Betty Batey of civil contempt in another trial, fining her $3,000 and sentencing her to 15 days in jail. However, she was given credit for 16 days served in a Colorado jail in the same case and the fine was stayed for one year on the condition that she comply with all court orders regarding visitation rights and custody of the couple's son, Brian, who is now 15.
Despite the jail sentence and fine, the appeal court's majority ruled that the proceeding against Betty Batey were "essentially civil, not criminal," and said that her contempt conviction "gave rise to no actual punishment, and its terms indicate a design to ensure future compliance by Mrs. Batey which will benefit Mr. Batey."
Justice Gerald J. Lewis dissented, noting that Betty Batey spent 16 days in jail, albeit before she was brought to trial. That and the 15-day jail sentence handed down by McConnell amounted to punishment and "contravenes the definition of what is a contempt that is criminal in character," wrote Lewis.
Brian Batey remained in the custody of foster parents after his mother's conviction. However, in June, McConnell awarded custody of the boy to his father. It is the second time that a judge has awarded custody to Frank Batey.
In custody proceedings in August, 1982, after the couple had divorced, Superior Court Judge Sheridan Reed gave Frank Batey custody of the youth and granted Betty Batey visitation rights. Two weeks later she picked up Brian on her first visit and the two disappeared for 19 months. Eventually they surfaced in Denver, after hiding in Texas.
The Bateys were married in San Diego in 1969 when they were both members of the United Pentecostal Church. They divorced in 1975, when Brian was 4, and Betty Batey was given custody of the boy.
However, by 1980, she refused to allow Brian to visit his father, and Frank Batey took the matter to court. Frank Batey's lawsuit ended with Reed giving him custody of his son.
A spokesman for the district attorney's office said that Betty Batey will be tried on the child-stealing charge by the end of the year. If convicted, she can be sentenced up to three years in state prison.
Betty Batey and her attorneys were unavailable for comment.