A sense of hard-earned joy coursed through a Rutherford County courtroom earlier this month at the scene of a unique adoption hearing.
Friends and family who a dozen years before had been united in grief following the senseless murder of Melissa Atkin, were united once more, but this time in celebration. It was January 15, what would have been Melissa's 49th birthday, and Melissa's son, Lucas, was finally being adopted.
Presiding over the hearing was Senior Judge Don Ash, the same man who, in 2008, sentenced Lucas's biological father to life in prison for the first-degree murder of Melissa.
Lucas had lived with his maternal grandparents, Linda and Douglas Atkin, since that time. He turned 18 in December 2019 and decided that he finally wanted to change his full name, Lucas Scott Reynolds, to Lucas Reynolds Atkin.
“We were already a family, but he didn't want to carry his dad's name; he wanted his mom's name to honor her,” Linda, 79, explained.
When she called the family's attorney, Mitchell Shannon, to inquire about how to going about it, she was told another possibility was in reach now that Lucas was an adult.
“He said, ‘Hey have you ever thought of adoption?', and I said, ‘Yes, for years,'” Linda remembered. “He said, ‘You can do it now.' And we're off to the races.”
Shannon asked the family if they had a preference for which judge should handle the adoption.
“I'd love Judge Ash,” Linda recalled.
She had been consistently impressed with him during the long, hard days of the 2008 trial.
“Judge Ash, he was so good,” she said. “He was so thorough. He made everybody at ease. It couldn't have been better I don't think, and not just because we won. I don't mean it that way. There was order in his court, and he was very kind about it. For the situation we were in, and we were all a mess, his control was helpful.”
At the time of the trial, Judge Ash was still a Circuit Court judge, a position he held for 18 years. For the past 8 years, he has been a Senior Judge, meaning he travels around the state hearing a variety of cases on assignment.
Shannon got in touch with him, and Judge Ash agreed to hear the case if the Tennessee Supreme Court would assign him to it. He contacted Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivin, who agreed. The family asked if the hearing could take place on January 15, Melissa's birthday.
Judge Ash said he was honored to receive the request and was happy to participate in the trial.
“People need to see hope,” he said in court. “They need to see grace. They need to see good things happen sometimes, and this is a good thing.”
That sentiment was certainly shared by those family members and friends in attendance, all of whom saw the adoption as a hugely positive milestone.
Marcia Kautz first met Melissa, or Missy as many called her, in 1989, and they quickly became best friends. When Lucas was born, Melissa asked Marcia to be his godmother.
“I'm ecstatic for Lucas and for the Atkin family,” she said. “It's been a long time coming. They've filled that role for the last 12 years and to have it be official is really wonderful to see.”
Some of those in attendance were people who had first met the family in a professional capacity, often under sad circumstances, but who had been drawn into the orbit of warmth and love that surrounds the Atkins.
One of those people is Detective Ralph Mayercik, one of the original detectives assigned to investigate Melissa's murder.
“I had the unfortunate job of having to work the criminal case,” he said at the hearing. “I have come to love this family like my own mom and dad. Lucas, I'm very proud of you, very proud. This day is long overdue.”
Part of the reason so many referred to the adoption as a “long time coming” or “long overdue” is because Linda and Douglas had wanted to formally adopt Lucas for years, but had run into legal obstacles related to the biological father's parental rights. They were told, for instance, that Lucas's biological father would have the right to attend any parental termination hearing in person. Lucas had not seen his biological father since he was charged with his mother's murder, and Linda and Douglas did not want to put him through that process. They were also told that Lucas could be called to testify if they followed through with their efforts.
“They were concerned about this boy's well-being,” Shannon explained. “The last thing they wanted to do was parade him up in front of court.”
“He was a little kid and would have been terrified,” Douglas said.
Once a person turns 18, though, a parent cannot object to a petition to terminate parental rights. Thus, the decision to go forward so soon after Lucas's 18th birthday.
For Lucas, the day in court was gratifying and a bit overwhelming.
“I wasn't expecting this many people, but it felt like a rush,” he said. “It's hard to describe. I was excited, nervous, happy that it's over. I'm happy that it went through. I'm kind of relieved that it all worked out.”
Now that it had all worked out, Lucas would soon be stepping outside the courtroom and into a new reality. That new reality was referred to during the hearing by his Uncle Larry.
“I'm the oldest son of Doug and Linda, and Luke's oldest brother now,” Larry Atkin said to laughter.
Lucas is not so sure if he'll start calling his one-time uncles his brothers or his one-time grandparents mom and dad right away, but he is sure that the name change and the adoption are more than just formalities.
“I wanted to finally be part of their family legally,” he said. “I just don't know how to describe it.”
No one is more pleased that this dream has at last been realized than Linda. Sitting in the back of the courtroom after the hearing is over, she talks about the process of watching Lucas grow from a young boy to a young man, about what she has lost and what she has gained.
“He's a joy, and he makes us laugh,” she said. “He even dusts. We're blessed. We lost something beyond belief, but we were given something the same way.”
At one point, Linda's friend of 67 years, Molly Whinnery, comes over and the two begin to talk. When Melissa was a young girl she was like the daughter that Molly did not have.
“Today was euphoric,” Molly said.
“That's a really good word,” Linda said.
“I'm thrilled to be here today,” Molly said. “It uplifted our heart.”
“You know what it's done?” Linda asked. “It's finished it. It will never go away. It will never make it better. But it finished it.”
While this one journey may have come to an end, a new one is just beginning. Lucas will be graduating from high school soon and entering adulthood, a whole life with a new name ahead of him. Judge Ash said he was pretty sure that “your mom's smiling down at us knowing that you've turned out to be an amazing young man and knowing that these two people stood in the gap for you when you needed somebody to do that.”