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Constitution Does Not Require Jury to Make Findings Supporting ‘Blended’ Juvenile/Adult Sentence

2007-0291 and 2007-0472.  State v. D.H., Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-9.
Franklin App. No. 06AP-250, 169 Ohio App.3d 798, 2006-Ohio-6953.  Certified question answered in the negative, and judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, and Carr, JJ., concur.
Lanzinger, J., concurs in judgment only.
Donna J. Carr, J., of the Ninth Appellate District, sitting for Cupp, J.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2009/2009-Ohio-9.pdf

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(Jan. 8, 2009) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that in cases where a juvenile is charged as a “serious youthful offender,” a section of state law authorizing a juvenile judge, rather than a jury, to consider certain factors in determining whether to impose a “blended” juvenile and adult sentence does not violate the defendant’s jury trial rights under the U.S. or Ohio constitutions.

In a 7-0 decision authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the Court also held that, in serious youthful offender cases where sentencing took place prior to this Court’s 2006 decision in State v. Foster, constitutional jury trial rights do not apply to findings made by a juvenile court under Ohio’s adult felony sentencing statutes in imposing the adult portion of a blended sentence.

Under R.C. 2152.13, an Ohio juvenile judge sentencing a “serious youthful offender” (a minor convicted of an offense that would constitute a violent felony if committed by an adult) is authorized to make factual findings to determine whether the defendant should receive a “blended” sentence that includes not only a normal juvenile sentence but also a stayed term of adult imprisonment. Under R.C. 2152.14, the adult portion of the sentence may be invoked (activated) if the juvenile engages in certain misconduct during the pendency of his juvenile sentence and if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the juvenile is “unlikely to be rehabilitated during the remaining period of juvenile jurisdiction.” In today’s decision, the Court noted that its opinion did not address the constitutionality of R.C. 2152.14.

In this case, a 15-year-old boy identified as D.H. was charged with murder and attempted murder for firing shots from a handgun during a neighborhood fight that resulted in the death of a bystander and the wounding of another person involved in the fight. The Franklin County Juvenile Court conducted jury proceedings prescribed by R.C. 2152.13 for prosecuting serious youthful offenders. The jury found D.H. not guilty on the murder and attempted murder counts, but guilty of the lesser offense of reckless homicide with a firearm specification. At a Feb. 8, 2006, sentencing hearing, the juvenile judge made factual findings that, given the seriousness of the offense, the defendant’s use of a firearm and other factors, a traditional juvenile sentence was not adequate to rehabilitate D.H. Based on those findings, the judge imposed a blended sentence including a term of juvenile commitment potentially lasting until D.H.’s 21st birthday, plus adult prison terms totaling an additional six years. Pursuant to the statute, the court stayed the adult prison term pending D.H.’s successful completion of his juvenile sentence.
D. H. appealed his sentence to the 10th District Court of Appeals. His attorneys argued that imposition of the adult portion of his blended sentence was unconstitutional under the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Feb. 27, 2006, ruling in State v. Foster, in which the Court held that an adult defendant’s constitutional right to trial by jury included the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, make any factual findings resulting in an enhanced or non-minimum sentence. The 10th District overruled D.H.’s appeal and affirmed the action of the trial court, but certified that its ruling was in conflict with an earlier decision of the 3rd District. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to resolve the conflict between appellate districts.

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice Pfeifer pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971) and this Court’s holding in In re Agler (1969) that because the fundamental objectives of juvenile proceedings are different than those of an adult criminal prosecution, juvenile offenders do not have a constitutional right to have their cases decided by a jury. He noted, however, that because juveniles like D.H. who are charged under Ohio’s serious youthful offender statute face the potential imposition of an adult sentence, this case differed in an important respect from the cases of the juveniles in McKeiver and Agler, and thus merited separate consideration. 

By giving minors charged as serious youthful offenders the right to have their guilt or innocence determined by a jury, but vesting juvenile judges with discretion to impose an appropriate sentence, Justice Pfeifer found that Ohio’s statutory scheme balances the due process rights of defendants with the state’s strong public interest in rehabilitating delinquent children.

“Should a juvenile exercise his right to a jury under R.C. 2152.13(C)(1), that jury will determine whether the juvenile did, in fact, commit the acts he is accused of. The determination of guilt – whether the defendant committed these acts – is little different from a jury’s determination in a case involving an adult tried in a criminal court. The General Assembly has decided that a juvenile deserves a jury in that fact-finding role. ... Only the jury’s factual determination makes the juvenile defendant eligible for a disposition that might include a stayed adult sentence,” wrote Justice Pfeifer.

“Despite the jury’s role in the adjudicative phase, removing the jury from the dispositional process does not violate due process,” Justice Pfeifer continued. “The court’s dispositional role is at the heart of the remaining differences between juvenile and adult courts. It is there that the expertise of a juvenile judge is necessary. The judge, given the factors set forth in R.C 2152.13(D)(2)(a)(i), must assess the strengths and weaknesses of the juvenile system vis-à-vis a particular child to determine how this particular juvenile fits within the system and whether the system is equipped to deal with the child successfully. That assessment requires as much familiarity with the juvenile justice system as it does a familiarity with the facts of the case. To leave that determination to an expert, given the juvenile system’s goal of rehabilitation, does not offend fundamental fairness, especially since the adult portion of the blended sentence that the judge imposes upon a jury verdict is not immediately, and may never be, enforced.” 

Justice Pfeifer concluded: “The constitutional test to be applied in regard to whether a statute violates a juvenile’s jury trial rights is whether the statute meets the requirements of due process and fundamental fairness. We hold that due process does not require a jury determination on the imposition of a serious-youthful-offender dispositional sentence under R.C. 2152.13, including the determination of the stayed, adult portion of the sentence. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the court below.

Justice Pfeifer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor and Terrence O’Donnell, and Judge Donna J. Carr of the 9th District Court of Appeals, who sat in place of Justice Robert R. Cupp. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in judgment only.

John W. Keeling, 614.462.3960, for juvenile offender D.H.

Katherine J. Press, 614.462.4440, for the State of Ohio and Franklin County prosecutor’s office.