ELYRIA — A 16-year-old Lorain boy set to be tried as an adult on murder and felonious assault charges stemming from a July shooting could see his case sent back to the juvenile court system thanks to an Ohio Supreme Court decision handed down Thursday.
The state’s high court ruled that it’s unconstitutional for juveniles 16 or older charged with certain high-level crimes like murder to have their cases automatically transferred to the adult criminal justice system if a judge found probable cause they had committed the crimes they were accused of, a process known as a mandatory bindover.
That’s what happened to Darius Ramey earlier this year after Lorain County Juvenile Court Judge Lisa Swenski ruled that there was enough evidence to move Ramey’s case into the adult system after a lengthy hearing that looked into whether he was responsible for shooting 31-year-old Kenneth Shinafelt once in the head.
Attorney Michael Towne, who served as Ramey’s guardian ad litem in the case, said he has long argued that juveniles are entitled to what’s known as an amenability hearing that looks at whether the juvenile system, with its focus on rehabilitation, can successfully handle the case. Amenability hearings have only been done when sending the case was left up to a judge’s discretion.
“As Darius’ GAL, I would believe that Darius would now be entitled to an amenability hearing,” Towne said.
Defense attorney Anthony Baker agreed with Towne’s assessment and said all juvenile defendants who face having their cases sent to adult court should get an amenability hearing.
“It’s going to be a good additional step for kids who shouldn’t be brought into the adult criminal justice system,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s decision said that juveniles are treated differently under the law because they are “fundamentally different from adults.”
“All children are entitled to fundamental fairness in the procedures by which they may be transferred out of juvenile court for criminal prosecution, and an amenability hearing like the one required in the discretionary-transfer provisions of the Revised Code is required to satisfy that fundamental fairness,” the decision said.
In a dissent, Justice Judith French wrote that there was no legal basis to grant juveniles subject to mandatory bindovers amenability hearings.
“I disagree with the majority’s cavalier decision to create greater protections under the Ohio Constitution, absent compelling reasons to do so,” French wrote. “And on the merits, I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that Ohio’s statutory mandatory-transfer provisions are unconstitutional.”
Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he fully expects that Ramey’s lawyers will try to return the case to juvenile court, although it’s unclear from the decision whether it will apply to cases that have already been moved to the adult system.
Will also said he doesn’t anticipate that the addition of the amenability hearings in mandatory bindover cases will cause that many problems for the system going forward.
“I’m not sure it’s going to have as a big an impact as some people think,” Will said.
Towne also said he doesn’t think he’ll try to reverse a 2014 decision that sent murder and other charges against then-17-year-old Tristen Belfiore to the adult justice system. Belfiore took a plea deal with prosecutors that saw him receive a 20-year prison sentence for fatally shooting Davion Strupe in July 2014.
“It potentially could (affect Belfiore), but I don’t believe it would be in Tristen’s best interest to do so,” Towne said.
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