Masonique Saunders has been locked behind bars in Ohio since December, when, at age 16, she was arrested in the death of her boyfriend, Julius Tate. She celebrated her birthday in juvenile detention. Last week, she was sentenced to three years in a Department of Youth Services prison.
But Saunders did not kill Tate, and the person who shot him to death is not facing any charges. He’s a Columbus police officer.
On December 7, Eric Richards, a member of the SWAT team, was assigned to an undercover sting meant to thwart an online robbery scheme. The alleged robbers targeted people who had arranged to purchase items from them over social media, but upon arriving to get their purchase, were robbed at gunpoint. That night, according to the police report, an undercover officer played the role of a customer, and met Tate in an unmarked police car not far from Saunders’s house. Richards was in the backseat, serving backup. They say Tate robbed the undercover officer at gunpoint, and Richards, from the back seat, shot and killed Tate. Saunders was arrested six days later and charged with murder.
Prosecutors could charge Saunders for a murder she didn’t commit due to Ohio’s “felony murder” rule; people can be charged with murder if they “caused the death of another” in the course of committing, or intending to commit, a felony. More than 40 states have similar rules; in 24 states, felony murder is a capital offense, punishable by death. Saunders’s case is unique in that it was a police officer who killed the person she was charged with murdering, but it’s not at all unique for a teenager to face such a felony murder charge.
Columbus prosecutors didn’t have to prove Saunders intended to kill Tate, only that she intended to commit the underlying felony of attempted robbery. Being charged with felony murder meant Saunders could be tried as an adult, and, if convicted, would face 15 years to life in prison if convicted. “That’s not right,” her mother, Danielle, told me in April. “She didn’t kill nobody. I don’t think they should have that—felony murder. It lets police get away with it, the crimes they do. It’s not fair to us as human beings. I feel like if they commit crimes, they should get the charges they committed.” (The investigation into Richards’s use of force remains open.)
Sometimes, felony murder charges are also a means to an end for prosecutors, as they can be used to coerce people into pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien in May defended the felony murder charge. When asked on Monday if he still thought this charge was warranted, he replied by email that Saunders confessed to prior robberies with Tate, and so “a motion to try her in adult court was withdrawn and she plead guilty” (his bold, his sic). He failed to acknowledge the obvious: Saunders pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery so that she could remain in the juvenile system and not risk being tried as an adult—a trial that could end in life imprisonment for a murder she didn’t commit. (She will be eligible for release from juvenile prison after two years.)
Felony murder is “the prototypical juvenile crime,” as Alison Burton wrote in 2017 in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. She noted that young people are more likely to commit criminal offenses in groups—51 percent of all homicides committed by juveniles involve multiple offenders, for example, but only 23 percent of adult homicides do—and because research shows that young people are more likely to underestimate risks.
A Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report found in 2005 that 26 percent of all juveniles sentenced to prison for life without parole had felony murder convictions. Curtis Brooks was fifteen when he was sentenced to life without parole in a felony murder case, also in a robbery in which he didn’t fire the fatal shot. (In December, after serving 22 years in a Colorado prison, Brooks was granted clemency by then-Governor John Hickenlooper and released.) But some states are abandoning the felony murder rule. In California, felony murder charges are now restricted only to those who themselves did or intended to commit a killing, after the law was changed in 2018. Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan have all struck their felony murder rules.
The felony murder charge hanging over Saunders drew the attention of local activists who are working to end police violence. In April, they briefly occupied the office of Prosecuting Attorney O’Brien, demanding he release Saunders, and later blocked the street outside the jail where she was held. They took up Saunders’s case in part because Columbus has a long history of officers evading criminal charges for shooting and killing people. When Richards killed Tate, he was the second Columbus SWAT officer that week to shoot someone during an undercover operation. Two days before Tate’s death, SWAT Officer Robert Vass shot 18-year-old Kyler Collier, after Vass said Collier tried to rob him in a sting. Collier lived, but was critically wounded. In total, Columbus police officers fatally shot 28 people between 2013 and 2017. Before Richards killed Tate, Columbus police had shot and killed at least eight people that year.
Columbus police were already receiving national criticism for their undercover stings. In July 2018, most infamously, undercover officers arrested Stormy Daniels and two other women at a strip club; all charges were soon dropped, and five officers now face administrative charges. That August, an undercover vice officer shot and killed 23-year-old Donna Dalton. The officer, Andrew Mitchell, has since been kicked off the force and indicted under federal charges for kidnapping and abuse of his badge. Soon after, Franklin County charged him with Dalton’s murder.
But the charges against Mitchell are rare in Columbus; he’s the only officer to be indicted for a fatal on-duty shooting and charged by O’Brien, the long-serving prosecuting attorney, in more than 20 years. Given that pattern, it’s unlikely Richards will face charges in Tate’s death. While Saunders will be imprisoned for several more years, Richards is being praised for his work: According to a since-deleted tweet from Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, in April, Richards was awarded SWAT Officer of the Year.