October 1, 2014

Elyria
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Ruling protects juvenile defendants

COLUMBUS — Just before his 14th birthday in August 2005, Corey Spears went on a crime spree — stealing and crashing two cars, taking a gun from a trailer, smoking marijuana laced with cocaine, and shooting a cow and horse. He pleaded guilty to several crimes after declining legal representation, and a judge in Licking County sentenced him to at least a year in juvenile prison, but not to exceed his 21st birthday.

Now, the Ohio Supreme Court has thrown out the sentence and ordered a new hearing for Spears, ruling 5-2 last week that juvenile defendants must consult with their parents or guardians and a lawyer before deciding to waive their right to legal representation.

Before, defendants could give up the right to an attorney in a standard hearing before a judge.

“A juvenile typically lacks sufficient maturity and good judgment to make good decisions consistently and sufficiently foresee the consequences of his actions,” Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote for the majority.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Lanzinger dissented, noting that Spears’ mother supported his decision to waive legal representation and plead guilty.

“The majority opinion, I think, invades the province of a parent’s role in raising his or her child,” O’Donnell said.

Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Law Center and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, urged the court to reverse a lower court ruling that the boy’s case had been handled properly.

“It’s typically the most vulnerable population that ends up waiving,” ALCU lawyer Emily Chiang said. “Kids with engaged parents or who are from a higher socioeconomic status tend to understand their rights better.”

The issue of questioning children about crimes without legal representation also has come up in the western Ohio town of Greenville, where a 10-year-old boy is accused of setting a house fire that killed his mother, sister and three other children. The boy’s step-grandfather has said the boy was alone when questioned by police and was not told of his right to attorney.

“They just kept pressuring him,” Rocky Reed told The Associated Press. Reed’s wife is the maternal grandmother of Timothy Douglas

Byers, who faces five delinquency counts of murder and one delinquency count of aggravated arson.

Jill Beeler, an assistant Ohio public defender, said there is no requirement that police notify parents before interrogating children.

“We see it a lot,” Beeler said. “It’s very common and, I think, very shocking. I think most parents would be horrified to know their child could be questioned without them even knowing about it, much less being there.”

She said young children do not have the mental capacity to intelligently use or give up their right to not to talk.

Police have said the boy has confessed to the crime. An attorney for the boy has said he will try to prevent the confession from being used.