Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Rejects Inmate Claim That He Was Too Young to Send to Prison

Close-up image of jail cell bars.

An inmate’s request to be released from prison was rejected.

Close-up image of jail cell bars.

An inmate’s request to be released from prison was rejected.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has rejected an inmate’s request to be released from prison after he alleged that two federal government mailings and a “Christian Baptismal Certificate” prove he was too young to be convicted in adult court for his crimes.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh District Court of Appeals decision to deny a writ of habeas corpus to Pele Bradford. Bradford is serving a sentence of 23 years to life in the Ohio State Penitentiary. A year ago, the Supreme Court found the Seventh District used the wrong procedures to deny Bradford’s claim that he was under 18 when in 2004 he was charged with aggravated murder in Hamilton County.

In today’s decision, the Court found that prison Warden Robert Bowen produced a certified copy of Bradford’s birth certificate that indicated Bradford was 25 years old at the time of the crime and the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court had jurisdiction to convict and sentence him to prison.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, Jennifer Brunner, and Joseph T. Deters joined the Court’s per curiam opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the Seventh District failed to comply with the Supreme Court’s February 2022 directive on how to proceed with the case. She would remand the case to the Seventh District to follow the instructions provided by the Court.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer joined the chief justice’s dissent.

Offender Claims Case Needed to Start in Juvenile Court
Bradford was found guilty of aggravated murder, illegally possessing a weapon, and two firearm specifications for an incident that occurred on Jan. 2, 2004. He was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 23 years. In 2007, he was convicted of escape and sentenced to two more years in prison.

In 2020, Bradford sought a writ of habeas corpus from the Seventh District, seeking his immediate release from prison. He claimed that at the time of his conviction he was 17 years old, and that the law required a juvenile court to consider the charges. He claimed that for an adult court to hear his case, the juvenile court had to first bind him over to adult court.

Bradford based his age claim on a form 1099-C he received in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Education reporting the cancellation of his student loan debt. That form listed his birthdate as Nov. 25, 1986. He also provided the court an IRS notice he received in 2017 indicating his birthdate as Nov. 25, 1986. In addition, he submitted a sworn statement that a Christian baptismal certificate with that birthdate existed, but he did not file a copy of the certificate with the court.

Warden Bowen asked the court to dismiss  the case or grant summary judgment to the state. He argued that Bradford did not provide the “best evidence” of his birthdate. The warden attached a copy of Bradford’s birth certificate obtained from “Bradford’s file.” The birth certificate indicated Bradford was born on Nov. 25, 1978, and was 25 years old at the time of the murder.

The Seventh District granted summary judgment to the warden and Bradford appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In its 2022 State ex rel. Bradford v. Bowen decision, the Court reversed the Seventh District. It ruled the warden did not produce a birth certificate with the original signature of the local registrar who certified the document and that it did not contain a seal. The warden also did not attach a sworn statement indicating the birth certificate was an authentic copy.

The Supreme Court decision ordered the Seventh District to “allow the writ, to require the warden to make a return, and to determine whether Bradford was under 18 years old on January 2, 2004.”

Appeals Court Reconsiders Case
Today’s opinion noted that a “return of writ” is a specific process stated in R.C. 2725.14(B). The return of writ is a method of responding to an inmate’s request to be released from prison. The law required Bowen to provide documentation indicating why Bradford was in prison, provide a sworn statement explaining why the writ should be denied, and sign the statement.

When the case was returned to the Seventh District, the appeals court instructed Bowen to supplement his prior filing with a certified copy of Bradford’s birth certificate.

The warden responded with a document labeled “return of writ,” which indicated he sent a subpoena to the Ohio Department of Health requesting a certified copy of Bradford’s birth certificate. He did not include documents showing why Bradford was incarcerated, and the document was signed by the warden’s attorney, but not the warden.

Bradford challenged the filing, arguing the warden failed to comply with the return of writ law. The warden then submitted the certified copy of Bradford’s birth certificate indicating he was born in 1978. The Seventh District denied the writ, concluding the warden provided the more reliable and credible evidence of Bradford’s age.

Bradford appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which was required to consider his case.

Supreme Court Examined Appeals Court’s Actions
The Court majority ruled that Bradford was correct in that Bowen’s original response did not include all the requirements for a return of writ. However, since the warden had previously presented documentation to the Seventh District when Bradford first sought his release, the Court considered the order by the appeals court to only supplement the filing to be sufficient.

The appeals court properly concluded that the certified copy of the birth certificate indicated Bradford was 25 when he was charged with the crime and the trial court could sentence him to prison, the Court concluded.

Dissent Raised Concern of Not Following Court Orders
In her dissent, Chief Justice Kennedy noted that the Court’s 2022 decision specified how the Seventh District was to proceed. She wrote that the Supreme Court has stated that an inferior court is “without authority to extend or vary the mandate issued by a superior court.”

The dissenting opinion explained that when the case was remanded, Bowen did not file a return of writ as instructed by the Supreme Court, but rather just asked the Seventh District to dismiss the case. The Court majority treated that request as the equivalent of a return of writ, but it should not, the opinion stated, because the motion to dismiss did not satisfy the statutory requirements for a return.

The dissent pointed out that the appeals court is required to follow the judgment of the Supreme Court “to preserve the structure of the superior and inferior courts as designed by the Ohio Constitution.” The dissent stated that it would require the Seventh District to rehear the case and require the warden to provide a return of writ as instructed.

2022-0545. State ex rel. Bradford v. Bowen, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-1105.

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