Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Teen Suspected of Shooting Friend During Car Chase Should Be Tried in Adult Court

A handgun on a car seat.

Teen can be tried in adult court for alleged shooting of friend in car.

A handgun on a car seat.

Teen can be tried in adult court for alleged shooting of friend in car.

Sufficient evidence was presented to transfer a teenager’s involuntary manslaughter charge to adult court for allegedly shooting his friend while they were fleeing police in a stolen car, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that to transfer a case from juvenile court to adult court, the prosecution needs only “to produce evidence that raises more than a mere suspicion of the juvenile’s guilt.” The decision reversed the rulings of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, which refused to bind over the then-16-year-old to face the involuntary manslaughter charge in adult court, and the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the juvenile court.

Writing for the Court, Justice Joseph T. Deters stated that the juvenile judge exceeded the role of “gatekeeper” when determining if there was probable cause to transfer the teen’s case. Instead, the juvenile judge expected the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office to provide definitive proof that the teen shot and killed his friend. Justice Deters wrote that at “the probable cause stage of the proceedings, the state need not prove a juvenile’s delinquency beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The opinion noted that the juvenile judge did not explain why the court did not find probable cause to charge the teen, identified in court records as E.S., with involuntary manslaughter. However, the judge’s questions and comments during the probable cause hearing indicated that the judge expected the prosecutor to refute any alternate theories of how the teen driver died and was expected to provide all the state’s evidence necessary to convict the passenger, E.S.

Teen Found Dead After Chase
In June 2020, E.S. and his 16-year-old friend, identified as E.M., were driving a stolen car when a female friend, identified as M.W., asked them for a ride home from a party. Around 5:15 a.m., two Cuyahoga Heights police officers saw the car speeding and began to follow it. The officers learned the vehicle was reported stolen. As they pursued the vehicle, the teens led the police on a chase. At some point, the car turned into a field. The officers were about 500 feet behind the vehicle when they saw it crash into a ditch.

One officer saw a male and female climbing the ditch embankment and pursued them. The other officer observed that the passenger side doors were open. He found the driver’s side door closed and the engine running. He stopped the engine and, seeing no one else, started to assist his fellow officer in pursuing the two other juveniles. The officer then spotted E.M. lying face down in the grass about 10 feet from the car. The officer drew his weapon and issued verbal commands to E.M., who did not respond.

Within minutes, Cleveland police arrived on the scene to assist. A Cleveland police officer found E.M. was unresponsive. The police lifted E.M.’s shirt and discovered he had been shot. E.M. died from the wound.

The officers found a gun and ammunition under the passenger’s seat, where E.S. had been sitting. They also recovered a fired bullet that had lodged into the inside of the driver’s side front door above the window. DNA evidence revealed the trigger and grip of the gun had a mixture of five contributors. A DNA analyst determined the majority of the DNA belonged to E.S. but did not identify the other four contributors. The analyst found that the other two teens in the car that night were not contributors to the DNA on the gun.

Prosecutor Sought to Try Teen in Adult Court
The prosecutor’s office filed a complaint in juvenile court charging E.S. with illegally possessing a gun, improperly handling a gun in a car, receiving stolen property, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless homicide. The juvenile court conducted a probable cause hearing to determine if E.S. should be transferred to adult court to face the charges.

At the hearing, the doctor who performed the autopsy on E.M. testified he died from a gunshot that entered his upper right chest just below his collarbone and exited his upper left back near his armpit.

M.W. testified that E.M. was driving, E.S. was in the passenger seat, and she was in the back seat. She said she did not see a gun, and at the time the car crashed, she heard a loud ringing noise. Earlier, she told a detective she had heard a “loud bang.” She said she and E.S. exited from the passenger side, and E.M. exited from the driver’s side and ran in the opposite direction.

Cleveland Police Detective Raymond Diaz testified that at the scene, both he and a fellow Cleveland officer examined the guns of the two Cuyahoga Heights officers. They determined that no rounds had been fired from Cuyahoga Heights officers’ weapons.

The juvenile judge actively questioned the prosecution’s witnesses and seemed skeptical of the police investigation. The judge asked Diaz about how the bullet found in the driver’s door above the exit handle and the window could have been the bullet that passed through E.M.’s body. “Was he standing up in the car?” the judge asked Diaz.

Following the hearing, the judge found probable cause that the three gun-related felony charges against E.S. should be transferred to adult court but found no probable cause that E.S. committed involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide.

The prosecutor appealed the decision not to transfer the involuntary manslaughter charge to adult court and did not contest the ruling on reckless homicide. In a 2-1 decision, the Eighth District affirmed the juvenile court’s decision.

The prosecutor appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Evidence Requirements for Case Transfer
Justice Deters explained that a juvenile court must find probable cause of a crime before a juvenile can be prosecuted in adult court. He noted the Supreme Court, in its 2022 State v. Martin decision, found probable cause exists “when the facts and circumstances are sufficient to provide a reasonable belief that the accused has committed a crime.”

The opinion also cited the Court’s 2001 State v. Iacona decision, which found that at the probable cause stage, the burden of proof is not the same as required for a conviction. The prosecutor only needs to produce evidence that raises more than a mere suspicion of guilt, the Court ruled in Iacona.

In Iacona, the Court stated there is no burden on the prosecutor to refute alternate theories of how the crime could have been committed, and there is no obligation “to marshall all of its evidence at the probable-cause phase.” At the probable cause stage, the juvenile court assumes the role of gatekeeper, determining whether the case stays in juvenile court or gets transferred, the opinion stated. The juvenile court does “not assume the role of the ultimate fact-finder,” the Court ruled.

In this case, the juvenile court played the role of fact-finder, expecting the prosecutor to rule out all other probable causes of the teen’s death and to produce enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that E.S.’s possession of the gun led to the death of E.M., the opinion stated.

“This was error,” the Court concluded.

The case was remanded to the juvenile court for further proceedings.

2022-0993. In re E.S., Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4273.

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