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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Vacates Conviction of Teen Who Claimed Other Personality Led Him to Kill

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The Court vacated the prison sentence of a 14-year-old boy with multiple personalities who murdered his father’s girlfriend.

Image of a human brain

The Court vacated the prison sentence of a 14-year-old boy with multiple personalities who murdered his father’s girlfriend.

The Champaign County Juvenile Court’s decision to transfer the case of a 14-year-old boy with multiple personalities to adult court for the murder of his father’s girlfriend was not supported by the evidence , the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court vacated Donovan Nicholas’ conviction for the 2017 murder of Heidi Taylor. Nicholas claimed a second personality, “Jeff the Killer,” stabbed Taylor, then shot her. Nicholas opposed the state’s request for the juvenile court to transfer his case to adult court, maintaining the prosecutor did not prove that the teen could not be treated in the juvenile court system.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated the juvenile court’s decision to transfer the case was based on a mischaracterization of the testimony presented by a court-appointed psychologist and an Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS) official.

“Here, the juvenile court’s decision that Nicholas is not amenable to treatment and rehabilitation in the juvenile system was based on a perception that DYS lacks the necessary resources to treat Nicholas’s mental illness — a perception that is not only unsupported by the record but that is, in fact, contrary to the reality established by the record,” she wrote.

The decision reversed the Second District Court of Appeals, which had affirmed Nicholas’ conviction and the sentence of life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the chief justice’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the issue of whether the juvenile court abused its discretion when granting the state’s motion for discretionary transfer was not before the Supreme Court and was not argued by the parties. The Court had agreed to hear the case to resolve three other issues Nicholas had raised. But, Justice Kennedy wrote,  “[t]o achieve its outcome, the majority engages in judicial overreach by exercising authority beyond the scope of the appeal.”  Justice Kennedy also disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the juvenile court had abused its discretion when it transferred the case to the adult court.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Prosecutors Seek to Have Teen Tried As Adult
Taylor lived with Nicholas and his father for more than 10 years, and Nicholas referred to her as “mom.” After he killed her, he called 911, reporting that Taylor had been stabbed and shot by “Jeff,” who is “inside of me.” Nicholas told the arriving officers that he had multiple personalities.

The Champaign County Prosecutor’s Office requested that the juvenile court transfer jurisdiction of the case to adult court. Under R.C. 2152.12(B), juvenile judges have the discretion to transfer some juveniles to adult courts. In some circumstances, the transfer is mandatory.

A discretionary transfer can occur if the juvenile court finds the child was at least 14 years old when the offense was committed, there is probable cause to believe the child committed the charged act, and the “child is not amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system, and the safety of the community may require that the child be subject to adult sanctions.”

Before deciding on a transfer, the juvenile court orders an investigation into the child’s history. Then the court weighs factors listed in R.C. 2152.12(D) in favor of transferring the child against factors in R.C. 2152.12(E) against transfer.

Treatment Options for Teen Debated
The juvenile court ordered psychologist Daniel Hrinko to evaluate Nicholas. At an amenability hearing, Hrinko reported that Nicholas was amenable to treatment in the juvenile system. Hrinko diagnosed Nicholas with “dissociative-identify disorder,” which is characterized by having two or more distinct personality states.

Hrinko reported that dissociative identify disorder can be successfully treated with intensive psychotherapy over a period of several years in a residential setting, with the goal of reintegrating the multiple personalities.

Hrinko could not point to a specific study that showed adolescents with dissociative identity disorder who perpetrate violent crimes can be treated, but he noted that Nicholas was particularly well-suited for successful treatment. He also could not state how long of a treatment plan would be necessary.  Nevertheless, he offered the expert opinion that Nicholas was amenable to treatment and rehabilitation in the juvenile system and that safe reintegration into society was likely.

Sarah Book, the acting chief of behavioral services at the state Department of Youth Services (DYS), testified that DYS facilities offer psychological and psychiatric services. She was aware of Nicholas’ diagnosis, and she expressed no reservation about DYS’s ability to care for and treat Nicholas.

Book noted she was unaware of any juvenile in a DYS facility with dissociative identity disorder. She also testified that DYS could not make a psychologist available to Nicholas for face-to-face consultation on a 24/7 basis.

The juvenile court weighed the statutory factors, and found that the factors in favor of transfer outweighed the factors against transfer. The court stressed in its finding that DYS could not offer the specific treatment necessary to rehabilitate Nicholas, and the juvenile system could not provide a reasonable assurance of public safety.

The court transferred the case to adult court, where Nicholas was tried for aggravated murder and murder, both with a firearm specification. A jury found him guilty on both counts.

Nicholas appealed the decision to the Second District Court of Appeals, which, in a split decision affirmed his conviction.

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

Procedural Issues Before Supreme Court
The Court agreed to consider three legal arguments, known as propositions of law, from Nicholas. Among his arguments was that prosecutors had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was not amenable to treatment in the juvenile system. He also maintained the prosecution needed to provide some proof that he was not amenable, and had to do more than just question the evidence produced by the experts the juvenile court ordered to assess him.  Lastly, he argued that the juvenile court was required to consider all the available dispositions available within the juvenile system as part of its determination of his amenability.

Chief Justice O’Connor explained that Nicholas was wrong about the procedural standards the juvenile court had to meet. To transfer a minor, the court need only find that transfer is supported by a preponderance of evidence, and the prosecutor is not required to produce affirmative evidence indicating a minor is not amenable to transfer. The chief justice also explained that the juvenile court was not required to consider available juvenile dispositions as part of its amenability analysis.

However, even having rejected Nicholas’s call for a higher standard of proof, the Court stated a juvenile court abuses its discretion by transferring a case when a preponderance of the evidence does not support the transfer decision, the Court stated. The chief justice wrote the juvenile court misinterpreted the testimony presented by Hrinko and Book to inaccurately conclude that DYS could not treat Nicholas.

The opinion stated that the juvenile judge incorrectly believed Hrinko suggested Nicholas needed 24/7 supervision from a psychologist. Hrinko stated that Nicholas needed around-the-clock supervision in a residential facility, and that weekly sessions with a psychologist would be appropriate. The juvenile court also concluded that Nicholas would need 24/7 treatment by someone specifically trained to treat dissociative identity disorder. The opinion noted Hrinko did not testify that Nicholas required treatment from such a specialist, but that the professionals hired by DYS could provide necessary treatment.

Because the record did not support DYS’s lack of ability to treat Nicolas, the juvenile court abused its discretion in holding that Nicholas was not amenable to treatment and care in the juvenile court system, the Court concluded. It remanded the case to the juvenile court for further proceedings.

Juvenile Court’s Assessment Should Stand, Dissent Maintained
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy wrote that in addition to the majority deciding the case on an issue not before it, the majority’s opinion was “wrong about the evidence and the law.” She asserted that the majority’s conclusion that the  juvenile court erred in considering the ability of the juvenile system to provide proper mental health treatment for Nicholas was “wrong on the law.”  The dissent asked, “If the juvenile system does not have mental-health-treatment services available to provide appropriate clinical treatment to Nicholas or if the expertise to reintegrate ‘Jeff the Killer’ into Nicholas is not available in the juvenile system, then how can Nicholas be amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system?”

The dissent noted that Hrinko testified about the need to “reintegrate” Nicholas’ two personalities into one and that it was rare for someone as young as Nicholas to be diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. Hrinko testified if Nicholas was unable to reintegrate Jeff, then Jeff could gain greater control and more “bad things will happen.”

 Justice Kennedy pointed out that the acting chief of behavioral services at DYS, Book could not commit to providing the treatment that Hrinko outlined.

“[T] he Department of Youth Services had no record of treating a juvenile with dissociative-identity disorder, did not have treatment services in place for dissociative-identity disorder or reintegration therapy, and did not have a psychologist in a facility 24 hours/7days a week,,” she wrote.

There was “competent and credible evidence” before the juvenile court supporting its ultimate determination that Nicholas was not amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system as well as its decision to transfer the case to the adult court, Kennedy reasoned. Therefore, the juvenile court had not abused its discretion, the dissent stated.

“The majority is simply imposing a result that it wants, but it is a result that no one is, or can be, prepared for,” Justice Kennedy concluded.

2020-1429. State v. Nicholas, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4276.

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