Masonique Saunders has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery in the case of Julius Ervin Tate, Jr., her boyfriend who was fatally shot by Columbus Police in December 2018.
Franklin County Judge James Brown announced the plea deal Thursday, allowing Saunders to avoid being tried as an adult. She faces up to three years in prison, with the possibility of early release after two years based on good behavior.
An officer shot and killed Tate, 16, during a sting operation on December 7 after he allegedly tried to rob another undercover officer at gunpoint. Police then arrested and charged Saunders, who was also 16 at the time, with “felony murder” for her role in Tate’s death.
Felony murder is a controversial provision in Ohio law that allows people to be charged with murder even if they did not actually kill the victim, but may have been complicit in their death. Many states have moved to ban the rule, or limit its practice.
"This particular case illustrates many of the controversies with felony murder," says Guyorra Binder, a professor at University of Buffalo school of law, and an expert on felony murder. "Because it involved the death of a felon, this is a police shooting, this is liability for an accomplice. On top of that, you have a youthful offender and you have very dubious police tactics."
Despite months of protests from community activists, Franklin County Prosecuctor's Office moved forward with charges against Saunders, who Columbus Police sought to try as an adult. A statement from Franklin County Prosecutor O'Brien said that trial as an adult is mandatory for murder charges.
However, the Prosecutor's Office ultimately accepted the plan for Saunders to plead guilty to lesser charges.
"She did share in money that was gained from the series of robberies, and at least by her estimate, there were at least 15 of these robberies that happened over a period of time," O'Brien said Thursday.
Posing as an online seller, Saunders would communicate with potential buyers, telling them where to meet Tate to purchase cellphones. In addition to the December 7 incident, Saunders also pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery in a November 28 case, in which a woman with a child was reportedly robbed and pistol-whipped.
Columbus Police last year conducted several undercover stings as part of a crackdown on armed robberies. An undercover SWAT officer would pose as a potential buyer, agreeing to meet an online seller to exchange an item for cash, while other officers hid nearby. At least two stings resulted in police shooting suspects, including Tate.
"We had very good success with the previous events without coming to deadly force," acting police chief Tim Becker said in a December press conference. "So it doesn't mean that the next one won't be able to be resolved without deadly force."
Protesters gathered at the Franklin County Courthouse on Thursday to demand Saunders' release. Community activists say the trial is a “gross injustice” and called for an independent investigation into Tate’s death.
"It’s incredibly disheartening," said protestor Dkeama Alexis. "This outcome is not one that we anticipated. It just goes to show that black people, often black youth and pressured to plea down, to accept charges for things that they didn’t do."
Protestors downstairs have heard the news. Some are crying, others are chanting “that ain’t right” pic.twitter.com/qnKF0pDMHO
— Paige Southwick Pfleger (@PaigePfleger) May 9, 2019
Four protesters were arrested at a #FreeMasonique demonstration Saturday that shut down traffic in the Short North.