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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Clarifies How Juvenile Courts Consider Evidence When Transferring Cases to Adult Court

Before transferring a minor to face criminal charges in adult court, a juvenile judge must consider if prosecutors presented more than a mere suspicion of guilt. However, the judge does not decide the merits of competing prosecution and defense theories, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision that an appeals court does not use a “manifest weight of the evidence ” test to determine if a juvenile judge properly transferred a case. The “manifest weight” standard is used by appeals courts to decide whether a jury or judge properly considered all the evidence before finding a defendant guilty and has no applicability to the transfer decision, the Court explained.

The decision upholds the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Tysean Martin, who shot and killed a man during a brawl involving about 20 people at a Maple Heights park in 2018. Martin, who was 16 years old at the time, argued his gun jammed and that there was not sufficient evidence to charge him as an adult.

Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated that a juvenile court acts as a “gatekeeper” when conducting a “mandatory bindover” proceeding, and considers “whether the state presented sufficient credible evidence to proceed with prosecution.” The manifest weight evaluation is used only after a judge or jury finds the defendant guilty after a trial, he explained.

Teen Fight Leads to Brawl
A 15-year-old girl, identified in court records as M.G., was with friends at a park when a fight broke out between her group of friends and another group of girls. M.G. went home, but when she got there, she realized her necklace was missing.

Martin and Damien Stewart, who were friends of M.G., offered to go to the park and look for her necklace. M.G. said Martin carried a black gun in his bookbag when he went to the park. Another friend of M.G.’s made a FaceTime call to her while accompanying Martin and Stewart.

Darnez Canion, 20, was with his own friends in a school parking lot when Stewart passed him on the way to the park. Canion punched Stewart. The two started fighting, and others quickly joined in. M.G. watched on FaceTime and saw a girl pass a gun to Canion. Stewart knocked the gun from Canion, and another person grabbed it. Martin drew his gun and began to fire.

M.G. saw “shots coming from both sides.” She thought Martin got off a few shots before his gun jammed and everyone began running. Her friend dropped the phone after the shooting started, and the call ended.

Teen Charged With Shooting Death
When police arrived at the scene, they found Canion on the ground with a gunshot wound, and he died shortly thereafter. Police found three different types of shell casings in the area, leading investigators to believe there had been at least three different shooters.

Video footage from a school security camera showed a group of 15 to 20 people at the scene of the fight. As Stewart and Canion were fighting, Martin ran out of the camera’s view. Police determined gun shots were fired from the area where Martin was thought to be standing, and shell casings were found in the same spot. Another security camera showed Stewart, Martin, and others running around the side of the school. Martin had a gun in his hand.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office filed a complaint in juvenile court, alleging Martin committed involuntary manslaughter, among other offenses. When a 16-year-old is accused of committing involuntary manslaughter with a gun, Ohio law requires a juvenile court to transfer the case to adult court for prosecution. The transfer, known as “mandatory bindover,” occurs only if the juvenile court finds probable cause to believe the juvenile committed the offense.

The juvenile court found the prosecutor’s office established probable cause and transferred Martin’s case to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other charges. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Martin appealed his conviction to the Eighth District, arguing that prosecutors failed to provide enough evidence at his probable cause hearing to bind him over to adult court. The Eighth District affirmed his conviction.

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

Teen Challenges How Evidence Should Be Weighed
Justice DeWine explained that Martin’s claim that he should not have been bound over is based on statements made by the Court in two prior decisions – State v. Iacona and In re A.J.S.  In Iacona, the Court stated that the prosecution “must provide credible evidence of every element of an offense to support a finding that probable cause exists to believe that the juvenile committed the offense.” 

The Court elaborated in A.J.S. that a juvenile judge “has a duty to assess the credibility of the evidence and to determine whether the state has presented credible evidence going to each element of the charged offense.” But Justice DeWine noted that in A.J.S. the Court stated that a juvenile court cannot exceed the limited scope of a bindover hearing and cannot “assume the role of the ultimate fact-finder.”

Martin maintained the statements in those cases indicate the judge’s decision to transfer his case was subject to a manifest weight of the evidence assessment by the appeals court. A manifest weight challenge considers “the greater amount of credible evidence, offered in a trial, to support one side of the issue rather than the other,” the opinion stated.

Before transferring a case to the adult court, the juvenile court must decide whether there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile committed a crime. The juvenile court does not resolve conflicts in the evidence, the Court explained. 

The Court rejected Martin’s argument that the “entire function” of the probable cause hearing is to weigh the evidence and evaluate it for credibility. It explained that the juvenile court in A.J.S. had “exceeded the scope of its review of the evidence when it weighed the conflicting evidence.” 

At his probable cause hearing, Martin argued that the state failed to prove that his gun was operable. The prosecution’s case was based on M.G.’s statement that through the FaceTime call, she saw Martin fire the gun. But at his hearing, M.G. could not be certain that she saw Martin fire any shots. The state also relied on camera footage that only showed a gun was shot from an area where Martin may have been standing off camera, and that he fled the area with a gun. He argued that it was possible that someone else had fired a gun from the same location.

The Court explained that Martin was presenting an alternate theory of the case.

“This is the type of argument a trier of fact would consider in deciding whether to convict or acquit after a trial,” the opinion stated. “The juvenile court presiding over a probable cause hearing does not sit as the ultimate trier of fact.”

Because the juvenile court does not weigh competing prosecution and defense theories when evaluating whether the state has established probable cause, its ruling is not subject to manifest weight review, the Court concluded.

2021-0967. State v. Martin, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4175.

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