Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Man’s Illegal Gun Possession Can Be Basis for Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that if a person is prohibited from using a gun but does so anyway, proximate resulting in the death of another, he can be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The reason that he is prohibited from using the gun is irrelevant.

In a 4-3 decision the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Jeremy Crawford for firing a gun at a Cleveland house party, which led to the death of Gary Dickens.

Crawford’s conviction was based on a state law that finds a suspect guilty of involuntary manslaughter if the suspect commits a felony and a “person’s death was a proximate result of the commission of that felony.” Crawford argued that his felony conviction for having a weapon while under disability was not connected to Dickens’ death.

Crawford maintained he was not allowed to have a weapon because of a drug possession conviction. Because drug possession was not a factor in Dickens’ death, the crimes are unrelated, he asserted. Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine explained “there is no requirement that the underlying reason” for a firearms disability be related to death of the victim.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated he agreed with the majority opinion in theory, but found the facts indicate that neither Crawford nor his gun caused Dickens’ death. However, since Crawford only challenged the law, and not the fact that another man shot Dickens, Justice Donnelly maintained the lower court’s decision should stand. He wrote Crawford’s appeal should be dismissed as improvidently accepted.

Justices Melody J. Stewart and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

Fight Escalates Into Shooting
Crawford’s girlfriend and family members were at a late-night house party in Cleveland. Dickens was at the party. Crawford arrived with a friend, Anthony “Prince” Barnes. One of the girlfriend’s relatives did not like Crawford and confronted him at the party. Dickens, who had a prior fight with Crawford, also approached Crawford when he arrived.

Crawford,  Dickens and another man began to argue. The dispute moved outside into the street. At some point Crawford pulled out a gun and fired several shots into the air. In the mayhem, Dickens was shot and later died at a local hospital. Partygoers gave conflicting accounts of what happened. One witness said the man known as “Prince ”—referring to Barnes — fired the shots that killed Dickens. Others said they did not see Barnes with a gun.

Crawford was indicted on four felony charges, including: illegally discharging a firearm; felony murder based on the unlawful discharging of a firearm; having a weapon while under disability; and involuntary manslaughter based on the felony of having a weapon while under disability.

Jury Dismissed One Charge
Along with the testimony of partygoers, the jury at Crawford’s trial also heard from a woman who spoke to Crawford several days after the shooting. The woman had been dating a relative of Crawford’s who was fixing a flat tire on Crawford’s car. While the repairs were being completed, the woman said Crawford told her he shot and killed Dickens at the party and damaged his tire when he hit a curb while leaving the scene. The woman then said Crawford told her he wanted people to know that “he shot into the air” and Barnes fired the fatal shots.

The jury found Crawford guilty of having a weapon while under disability and involuntary manslaughter. The jury also found Crawford guilty of unlawfully discharging a firearm, but because there was “no finding of causing serious physical harm,” the court reduced that charge to a misdemeanor. The charge of unlawful discharge served as the basis for felony murder, but because it was reduced to a misdemeanor, the jury found Crawford not guilty felony murder.

Crawford appealed the verdict to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Crawford appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Weapons Charge
The opinion explained that Crawford violated R.C. 2923.13(A) by using a weapon when he was prohibited from having or using one. Multiple eyewitnesses saw Crawford bring the gun to the house and fire it, and while it was not certain who shot and killed Dickens, the Eighth District stated that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Dickens’ death was related to Crawford’s illegal use of his gun.

The majority opinion looked to the plain terms of Ohio’s involuntary-manslaughter law. That law, R.C. 2903.04(A), states no person shall cause the death of another as a result of committing or attempting to commit a felony. The Court stated that contrary to Crawford’s argument, the circumstances behind the firearm prohibition are “of no consequences.”

The Court stated that there was no dispute that Crawford was prohibited from having a gun, and no dispute that he violated the weapons-while-under-disability statute by firing it at the party. It further noted Crawford conceded that the jury could find that his use of the gun led to Dickens’ death. The court concluded that nothing more was needed to establish that Crawford committed involuntary manslaughter.  It therefore affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Facts, Jury Point to Other Shooter, Dissent Stated
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly wrote the missteps at the trial level made the case “problematic,” but the legal arguments brought to the Supreme Court did not allow the Court to solve the true problem.

The dissent stated none of the witnesses testified that Crawford shot Dickens, but some stated that Barnes shot him. The dissent noted the jury found Crawford guilty of the lesser charge of unlawfully discharging a firearm because the jurors concluded Crawford’s shooting did not cause serious physical harm to Dickens.

“According to the jury’s verdicts, Crawford’s act of shooting the gun did not proximately cause Dickens’ death but, somehow, the act of having the gun while under disability did,” the dissent stated.

The instructions to the jury led to the confusing result, the dissent stated. But Crawford did not argue to the Supreme Court that his weapons charge could not be the basis for involuntary manslaughter “when neither the person under disability nor the person’s weapon” caused the victim’s death.

Because the appeal did not address the flaws in the case, it would have been best if the Court had not reviewed it at all, the dissent concluded.

2020-0797. State v. Crawford, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-1509.

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