State v. Nicholas, 2020-1429

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtO'Connor, C.J.
Citation2022 Ohio 4276
PartiesThe State of Ohio, Appellee, v. Nicholas, Appellant.
Docket Number2020-1429
Decision Date02 December 2022


The State of Ohio, Appellee,

Nicholas, Appellant.

No. 2020-1429

Supreme Court of Ohio

December 2, 2022

Submitted December 7, 2021

Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Champaign County, No. 2018-CA-25, 2020-Ohio-3478.

Kevin S. Talebi, Champaign County Prosecuting Attorney, and Jane A. Napier and Benjamin T. Hoskinson, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for appellee.

Timothy Young, Ohio Public Defender, and Timothy B. Hackett, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, Benjamin M. Flowers, Solicitor General, and Samuel C. Peterson, Deputy Solicitor General, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Michael C. O'Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, and Daniel T. Van, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Kevin J. Truitt, urging reversal for amicus curiae Disability Rights Ohio.

Cullen Sweeney, Cuyahoga County Public Defender, and Erika B. Cunliffe, Assistant Public Defender, urging reversal for amicus curiae Cuyahoga County Public Defender.

National Association for Public Defense and H. Louis Sirkin, urging reversal for amicus curiae National Association for Public Defense.

Justice for Children Project and Kimberly Jordan, urging reversal for amicus curiae Justice for Children Project.

Raymond Faller, Hamilton County Public Defender, and Jessica Moss, Juvenile Appellate Trial Counsel, urging reversal for amicus curiae Hamilton County Public Defender.

Theresa Haire, Montgomery County Public Defender, and Kay Locke, Assistant Public Defender, urging reversal for Montgomery County Public Defender.

Yeura Venters, Franklin County Public Defender, and Timothy E. Pierce, Assistant Public Defender, urging reversal for Franklin County Public Defender.

Children's Law Center and Leah R. Winsberg, urging reversal for amicus curiae Children's Law Center.


O'Connor, C.J.

{¶ 1} After the Champaign County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, transferred jurisdiction over appellant, Donovan Nicholas, to that court's general division, a jury found Nicholas guilty of aggravated murder and murder, both with firearm specifications, for the killing of his father's live-in girlfriend when he was 14 years old. In his direct appeal, Nicholas argued that the juvenile court abused its discretion and violated his constitutional right to due process by transferring his case to the adult court, but the court of appeals rejected that argument and affirmed Nicholas's convictions. 2020-Ohio-3478, 155 N.E.3d 304, ¶ 5.[1]

{¶ 2} The legal issues presented in this appeal concern the standards and procedures that apply to a juvenile court's discretionary transfer of a juvenile for prosecution in an adult court. We specifically consider the questions of which party bears the burden of proof, what is the applicable standard of proof, and whether the juvenile court must consider all juvenile dispositional options, including a serious-youthful-offender disposition, in determining whether a juvenile is amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system. After answering those questions, we consider the juvenile court's application of the relevant standards to the facts of this case.

I. Relevant Background

A. Discretionary transfer under RC. 2152.12(B)

{¶ 3} Ohio's juvenile justice system provides for two types of transfer: discretionary and mandatory. State v. Hanning, 89 Ohio St.3d 86, 90, 728 N.E.2d 1059 (2000).


As its name implies, discretionary transfer affords juvenile-court judges the discretion to transfer to adult court certain juveniles who do not appear to be amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system or who appear to be a threat to public safety. Id; R.C. 2152.12(B). Mandatory transfer, on the other hand, removes discretion from judges and requires the transfer of a juvenile to adult court in certain situations. Id; R.C. 2152.12(A). This case concerns discretionary transfer.

{¶ 4} When a complaint has been filed in juvenile court alleging that a child is a delinquent child for committing an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult, the juvenile court may transfer the child to adult court for prosecution if it finds (1) that the child was at least 14 years old at the time of the charged act, R.C. 2152.12(B)(1), (2) that there is probable cause to believe that the child committed the charged act, R.C. 2152.12(B)(2), and (3) that "[t]he 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," R.C. 2152.12(B)(3). Before making a discretionary-transfer decision, the juvenile court must order "an investigation into the child's social history, education, family situation, and any other factor bearing on whether the child is amenable to juvenile rehabilitation, including a mental examination of the child by a public or private agency or a person qualified to make the examination." R.C. 2152.12(C).

{¶ 5} In determining whether to exercise its discretion to transfer a juvenile to adult court under R.C. 2152.12(B), the juvenile court must balance statutory factors weighing in favor of transfer, which are listed in R.C. 2152.12(D), against statutory factors weighing against transfer, which are listed in R.C. 2152.12(E), and the court must indicate on the record the specific factors it weighed in making its determination, R.C. 2152.12(B)(3). The statutory factors set out in R.C. 2152.12(D) and (E) generally address personal characteristics of the juvenile, the juvenile's history in the juvenile-court system, and the circumstances of and the


harm caused by the acts charged. Some of the statutory factors may be used only to weigh in favor of transfer, see, e.g., R.C. 2152.12(D)(1), or against transfer, see, e.g., R.C. 2152.12(E)(1), while other factors, including the juvenile's emotional, physical, and psychological maturity, see, e.g., R.C. 2152.12(D)(8) and (E)(6), and the time remaining for rehabilitation in the juvenile system, see, e.g., R.C. 2152.12(D)(9) and (E)(8), may be used to weigh either in favor of or against transfer.

B. Juvenile-court proceedings

{¶ 6} Nicholas was charged with delinquency in the juvenile court for causing the death of Heidi Fay Taylor, his father's live-in girlfriend, whom Nicholas referred to as his mother. A signed statement from a sheriffs detective, Ryan Black, was attached to the juvenile complaints. Detective Black related that a male who identified himself as Donovan Nicholas placed a 9-1-1 call, stating that he had killed his mother. The caller stated that Taylor had been stabbed and shot by "Jeff"-who" 'is inside me.'" Upon responding to the scene, Detective Black and another detective found Nicholas sitting on the kitchen floor, wearing a white, blood-stained t-shirt. Nicholas directed the detectives to Taylor's body, which was in an upstairs bedroom. Nicholas spontaneously told Detective Black that he had "multiple personality disorder," and he later told another detective that a second personality-"Jeff the Killer"-had emerged and was in control at the time of the offenses.

{¶ 7} The state filed a motion to transfer jurisdiction from the juvenile court to the adult court, pursuant to R.C. 2152.10(B) and 2152.12(B). The state argued that Nicholas was not amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system and that the safety of the community required that he be subject to adult sanctions.

{¶ 8} The juvenile court ordered Daniel Hrinko, Psy.D., to conduct a competency evaluation of Nicholas and appointed a guardian ad litem ("GAL") for Nicholas.


{¶ 9} At a competency and probable-cause hearing, the parties stipulated to Dr. Hrinko's evaluation attesting to Nicholas's competence, and based on Dr. Hrinko's conclusions, the court declared Nicholas competent to stand trial. After questioning Nicholas and his father about their understanding of Nicholas's rights and their intent to waive a probable-cause hearing, the court found that probable cause existed to believe that Nicholas had committed the acts charged. And based on the parties' stipulation, the court found that Nicholas was 14 years old at the time of the charged acts. Based on those findings, the court found that Nicholas was eligible for discretionary transfer to adult court. In compliance with R.C. 2152.12(C), the court ordered Dr. Hrinko to conduct an amenability evaluation and ordered the GAL to complete a social history and an investigation into Nicholas's family, education, and juvenile-court history.

{¶ 10} In his memorandum in opposition to the state's motion to transfer, Nicholas conceded the applicability of several statutory factors weighing in favor of transfer, specifically that the victim suffered physical harm, see R.C. 2152.12(D)(1); that his relationship with the victim facilitated the act charged, see R.C. 2152.12(D)(3); and that he used a firearm during the commission of the act, see R.C. 2152.12(D)(5). But he also noted that he had just turned 15 years old at the time of the amenability hearing, that he measured only 5'3" tall and weighed only 108 pounds, and that he suffered from treatable mental-health conditions. He argued that his extreme youth and treatable mental illness were the most important factors weighing against transfer, and he urged the juvenile court to retain jurisdiction.

{¶ 11} At the amenability hearing, the parties stipulated to the admission of certain evidence, including reports submitted by Dr. Hrinko and the GAL. Dr. Hrinko concluded in his report that Nicholas was amenable to treatment within the juvenile system, and the GAL concluded in her report that it was in Nicholas's best interest to remain in juvenile court. The court also heard testimony from witnesses


called by both parties. The...

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