Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Police Properly Obtained Juvenile’s Confession to Shooting Friend

The Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed the juvenile murder disposition of a 15-year-old Cleveland boy for the 2019 shooting death of a 14-year-old boy.   

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court found that the juvenile court properly admitted statements made by the boy and that police officers had not coerced his confession to the murder. 

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Joseph T. Deters explained the juvenile court did not make an error in concluding that the boy knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and that the police officers had not coerced the boy’s statements.

“The totality of the circumstances shows that his waiver was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary,”  Justice Deters wrote.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Deters’ opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly argued the Court should have ruled the case was improvidently accepted and that the lower court decisions should stand. Justice Donnelly questioned the tactics police used when interrogating T.D.S. But he noted the key issue T.D.S. attempted to raise with the Supreme Court was whether the juvenile court should have prevented any statements T.D.S. made from being used against him. But T.D.S. did not take the correct procedural steps to have the Court consider that argument, Justice Donnelly concluded.

In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner asserted that T.D.S.’s statement was coerced. She wrote police repeatedly lied to T.D.S., telling him they had evidence of his guilt and repeatedly threatening him with life in prison. The police manipulated a boy with an IQ of 60 to admit to committing the crimes before reading his Miranda warnings, and all of his statements should have been deemed inadmissible, she wrote.

Justice Melody Stewart joined Justice Brunner’s dissent.

Youth Questioned for Murder
In September 2019, Cleveland police discovered a 14-year-old boy, identified in court records as “S.G.,” had been shot in an apartment building. S.G. later died from the injuries. Based on information from a high school principal, police investigators went to the home of T.D.S.

Three detectives encountered T.D.S. and his mother at the home. T.D.S.’s mother gave the detectives permission to speak with the boy. The 97-minute meeting at the house was captured by one of the detective’s body-worn cameras. T.D.S. initially denied having been at the apartment building with his friend, S.G., and he challenged the detectives’ assertion that a person matching his description had been seen leaving the apartment.

After about 35 minutes of questioning, T.D.S. asked if he could speak to the detectives without his mother present, and she left the room but remained close by. He eventually told police he accidentally shot S.G. while playing with the gun and agreed to show a detective where he threw the gun after he left the building.

A detective then told T.D.S. he was going to read T.D.S. his Miranda rights, and the detective asked T.D.S.’s mother to sit by the juvenile. After being informed of his rights, T.D.S. indicated he understood them. For the next 30 minutes, the detectives asked T.D.S. occasional questions as they waited for uniformed officers to transport T.D.S. to the field where he said he threw the gun.

Police reported searching the field for about two hours without recovering the gun. Detectives took T.D.S. to the apartment building to show them where the shooting occurred. T.D.S. said he was sitting on a crate when he accidentally shot S.G. and then described walking toward S.G. and accidentally shooting him a second time.

Detectives took T.D.S. to the police station and interviewed him there. The recording of the interview was played in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court at an adjudicatory hearing but was not included in the record for the Supreme Court to consider. According to a detective, T.D.S. said that S.G. had stolen a gun from an adult known to him as “Vaughn” and that Vaughn reached out to T.D.S. to get the gun back from S.G.

Text messages between S.G. and Vaughn reflected that Vaughn asked S.G. about the gun. And S.G.’s cousin testified that a few days before S.G. was killed, he heard T.D.S. tell S.G. that someone offered T.D.S. $1,000 to kill S.G. The cousin heard T.D.S. say he was not going to do it.

T.D.S. was charged with murder, felonious assault, tampering with evidence, and illegally possessing a gun. The charges carried a serious-youthful-offender specification.

Teen Sought to Suppress Statements to Police
The juvenile court found T.D.S. was amenable to treatment in the juvenile system and declined to transfer the case to adult court. Questions regarding T.D.S.’s IQ were raised, and the juvenile judge found T.D.S. was competent to stand trial.

T.D.S.’s attorney sought to suppress all the statements the boy made to the detectives. The juvenile court agreed to suppress all the statements made before the Miranda warning was given but not those afterward. The juvenile court adjudicated T.D.S. delinquent for felony murder and other charges. The court imposed an adult prison sentence of 15 years to life, consecutive to a 3-year sentence for a firearm specification. The prison sentence was stayed on the condition that T.D.S. successfully complete his juvenile sentence, and he was committed to a Department of Youth Services facility until age 21.

T.D.S. appealed his adjudication to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. T.D.S. appealed the Eighth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Police Interview
T.D.S. argued that under the “totality of the circumstances,” he had not waived his Miranda rights, and citing the Supreme Court’s 2006 State v. Farris decision, he argued that his statements made after he received the Miranda warnings should have been suppressed.

Justice Deters explained that in the Farris case, the Court considered the admissibility of statements a suspect made before being informed of his Miranda rights and then repeated to police after being read his Miranda rights. The Court found that because T.D.S. did not argue the reasoning in Farris applied to his case in the lower courts, the record was inadequate to consider the argument at the Supreme Court.

The opinion explained that the juvenile judge suppressed the confession T.D.S. made before being read his rights and that statements made after T.D.S. left the house with detectives were not discussed during the hearing before the juvenile court. 

The Court reviewed T.D.S.’s claim that he did not “knowingly, intelligently, or voluntarily” waive his rights. The opinion noted that while T.D.S. emphasized that he had a low IQ, one of the psychologists who evaluated T.D.S.’s competency found his communication skills were better than his IQ reflected and that “deficient intelligence” is only one factor in the totality of the circumstances.

The Court explained that T.D.S. had prior juvenile offenses and that he challenged some of the allegations from the police when they suggested he was at the crime scene.

“In short, T.D.S.’s prior experience in the juvenile system, his understanding of that system, and his communication with detectives indicate that his waiver of his Miranda rights was done knowingly and intelligently. Moreover, nothing about the tone or the length of the questioning resulted in his will being overborne,” Justice Deters wrote.

The Court also considered whether the police used “coercive tactics” to get T.D.S. to confess. The Court noted that T.D.S.’s claims that police had lied to him and had isolated him from his mother and sister were not supported by the record and that there was no indication of coercive acts such as threatening physical abuse or deprivation of food, sleep, or medical treatment.

Confession Coerced, Dissent Stated
Pointing to both U.S. and Ohio Supreme Court decisions, Justice Brunner wrote that the courts have explicitly denounced the question-first-warn-later tactic that was used in this case. She noted that once a suspect has confessed to a crime while under the impression that they were in police custody and not free to leave, they are likely to repeat the confession. To then read the Miranda warnings to the suspect and repeat the questioning does little to protect a suspect whose confession was coerced before having been read their rights, she stated.

She wrote the detectives’ interrogation was “psychologically coercive” and took place for more than an hour before T.D.S. was read his rights.

“T.D.S. then was led to confess twice more without receiving renewed warnings and without an understanding that his prior confession could not be used against him. The circumstances should give any court pause,” she wrote.

2022-0359. State v. T.D.S., Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-595.

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