The murder case against 17-year-old Masonique Saunders

Julius Tate, Jr. was killed by Columbus police. Now girlfriend Masonique Saunders sits in juvenile detention, charged with his murder.

Andy Downing
A memorial for Julius Tate, Jr. on Mount Vernon Avenue, near the home of Masonique Saunders

In the early evening on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, Jamita Malone received a phone call informing her that her son, Julius Tate, Jr., 16, had been shot by police and transported to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center.

“I went out [to the hospital] and the news media was there and I couldn't find my boy,” said Malone, who was informed of events after they unfolded by Danielle Williams, the mother of Tate's girlfriend, Masonique Saunders. “No one [from the hospital] came out and told me that my son was lying on a table, gone. … My son's birthday would be next month. He'd be 17 years old. But he's sitting on my mantelpiece downstairs and I can't even touch him. I can't say, ‘I love you.' I can't even hug him. My son can't even tell me what the hell they've done to him.”

Columbus Division of Police shot and killed Tate during an undercover investigation into a series of robberies tied to in-person sales arranged via social media websites. According to CPD, as reported by theDispatch, a SWAT officer, who posed as a potential buyer, agreed to meet Tate to purchase an item with cash near the Near East Side intersection of Mount Vernon and North Champion avenues, about 40 paces from where Williams lives with her three children, including Saunders. During this exchange, CPD said Tate pulled a gun and robbed the officer, at which point another SWAT officer, Eric Richards, shot and killed Tate. An autopsy released in early April revealed that Richards shot Tate five times, striking him three times in the abdomen and once each in the chest and head. Tate was pronounced dead at Grant Medical Center at 6:32 p.m.

The shooting took place three days after a similar incident in which SWAT officer Robert Vass shot and wounded Kyler Collier, 18, during a robbery sting staged in the parking lot of a Southeast Side townhome complex.

Additionally, the prosecutor's office alleges that Tate and Saunders were both involved in a second robbery at the same Mount Vernon Avenue location three days prior to Tate's shooting, during which a victim was pistol-whipped. If events unfolded as authorities allege, Tate family attorney Byron Potts said, the police response of Dec. 7 should be further called into question.

“If they're alleging that this happened before, then they had an idea what was going to transpire,” Potts said. “We believe they came with the intent of shooting Julius Tate. … [Police] have the ability to not kill someone if they plan it out properly. And if it happened like they say it did, then they had prior knowledge that [Tate could be armed]. … They're acting like the judge and the jury right there on the streets.”

Protesters march for the release of Masonique Saunders on April 7, 2019, in downtown Columbus.

Six days after Tate was killed, officers with the Southern Ohio Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team arrested Saunders, who police allege was Tate's accomplice, charging the then-16-year-old with aggravated robbery. Saunders was also charged with murder for her role in the events that led to Tate's death, with the office of Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O'Brien invoking the felony murder rule, which provides that “no person shall proximately cause the death of another person as the result of committing a first or second degree felony,” according to an emailed statement provided by O'Brien's public information officer, Christy McCreary.

Since being charged, Saunders, 17, has been held Downtown at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Facility. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday, May 9, 2019, which will determine if she will be tried as an adult. (Saunders' attorney, Jon Tyack, declined multiple requests for comment.)

Saunders' arrest shines a spotlight on the little-discussed felony murder rule, which has received increased attention elsewhere in recent years. In September 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation severely restricting felony murder in the state. Previously, legislatures in Kentucky and Hawaii abolished the rule, and in 2017 Massachusetts ended the process through the courts, joining Michigan, which did away with it in a State Supreme Court ruling nearly four decades ago, calling the rule “a historic survivor for which there is no logical or practical basis for existence in modern law.”

More recently, the Pennsylvania Legislature has debated a bill aimed at curtailing the practice, the origins of which are muddy, with law students generally taught that it's a relic of British common law. (England abolished its version of the law in 1957; the United States is currently the only country where the felony murder rule still exists.)

Ohio, though, is one of about a dozen states that allow for individuals who commit a felony that ends in death to be charged with murder even if the person killed is their own accomplice. There is also legal precedent in the state allowing felony murder to be charged even if the death is the result of an unreasonable or illegal police response, according to Guyora Binder, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law and an expert on felony murder.

Binder pointed to State v. Lovelace, a 1999 Ohio case in which Paul Wayne Lovelace, driving a stolen car, ran a stop sign during a police chase. In pursuit, one of the police officers ran the same stop sign, striking another car and killing its driver. Though convicted of involuntary manslaughter rather than felony murder, Lovelace was held causally responsible for the victim's death under the same standard that would be applied in a felony murder case.

Quoting language from the case, Binder said, “Simply because a person's conduct is unreasonable or even criminal, does not make it unforeseeable.”

“So what the court was saying is, ‘The police officer proceeding through a stop sign at high speed, that might have been unreasonable, or even criminal, but if it was foreseeable as a result of Lovelace's speeding, Lovelace was on the hook for it,'” Binder continued. “If we bring this back to Saunders, even if the police shooting of Tate was unreasonable or unlawful, if it was foreseeable as a result of Saunders' participation in a robbery, Saunders could still be on the hook.”

According to the statement provided by the Prosecuting Attorney's office, the felony murder rule has been utilized locally on at least two previous occasions where the offender was charged when the death resulted from police action. This includes a 2014 stakeout of a Dollar General store on Alum Creek Drive where two robbers were shot and killed by police. The other two accomplices were charged with their murders, eventually pleading to involuntary manslaughter.

Critics of the felony murder rule note that the law, which relies heavily on prosecutorial interpretation, can lead to head-scratching results, with accomplices charged for deaths that occur at the hands of police, or even the victim.

In the Saunders case, for instance, Binder said the fact that Tate's death was the result of a police sting makes a felony murder charge troubling.

“What strikes me as very strange about this situation is that they were using police as decoys to sort of invite or provoke armed robbery,” Binder said. “And apparently with a SWAT team there, so anticipating a gun battle and planning to resolve the situation by shooting the suspect. If these reports are correct, that seems remarkably careless of the lives of suspects, police and the public.”

Protesters march in downtown Columbus on April 7, 2019, hoping to gain the release of Masonique Saunders, who is in juvenile detention charged with the murder of her boyfriend, Julius Tate, Jr.

The law can also disproportionately impact minorities — in California, for example,data compiled by the Felony Murder Elimination Project estimates that nearly 40 percent of those convicted under the rule are black — as well as juveniles, who tend to act in groups. In a 2005 study undertaken by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which looked at the more than 2,200 child offenders serving life without parole for crimes committed before they turned 18, an estimated 26 percent were convicted of felony murder.

“We know that kids are different than adults,” said Jeree Thomas, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice. “We have all this information about brain science, and we know that sort of executive functioning and thinking ahead is not wired in young people yet, especially to put that amount of culpability on them where they can end up with these long sentences, or de facto life sentences. It's really, deeply unfortunate. And it's a waste of the potential of young people when that happens.”

The felony murder rule has even received criticism from unlikely sources, including the legal director of the nonprofit, California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, Kent Scheidegger, who has been described as the country's “most outspoken advocate for capital punishment.”

Interviewed byThe Guardian regarding a 2015 case in which Alabama police shot and killed A'Donte Washington and then charged Washington's friend, Lakeith Smith, with his murder, Scheidegger argued that the application of the rule was excessive. Because a grand jury ruled Washington's death a justifiable homicide, Scheidegger said, Smith was being held criminally responsible for the death of someone who was not, at least in legal terms, murdered.

“You can't be an accessory if there is no principal,” Scheidegger toldThe Guardian, a view he confirmed in an email toAlive, with the caveat that “the passage quoted is my personal opinion about what the law should be, not a legal opinion about what the law is.”

Protesters march for the release of Masonique Saunders on April 7, 2019, in downtown Columbus.

On a rainy evening in late March, roughly 15 activists gathered at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church adjacent to Campus to paint signs for an early April demonstration. While the vibe was low-key — music played softly in the background and the conversation was generally kept to a minimum as group members worked — the bold-faced words painted on colored poster boards were far less reserved: “Free Masonique”; “Justice 4 Julius”; “Blue Lives Murder.”

A week later, on Saturday, April 7, the once-quiet protesters joined in a collective roar during a march and noise demonstration, which started Downtown in Bicentennial Park, looped past the Ohio Statehouse and settled on Front Street outside the juvenile detention facility where Saunders is currently being held.

“The best way to face tragedy is with fists up, fighting,” said organizer Blizzard Wilcher, addressing the crowd of 60 or so prior to the start of the march. “Have [Saunders] feel your support, your presence, your energy.”

Along the walk, the protesters, who wielded instruments (flutes, drums, kazoos, at least one trombone), kitchen utensils (pots, pans, metal spoons) and other sundry noisemakers (utility buckets, aluminum trashcan lids), chanted freedom songs and protest slogans (“When black lives are under attack/What do we do?/Stand up, fight back”). Once settled on Front Street, action temporarily spilled into traffic, with dozens of people linking arms to block cars, eliciting a heavy, immediate police response and leading to the arrest of one protester. As the group returned to the sidewalk, a new chant started to build among its ranks, directed at the growing police presence in the streets: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”

The demonstration was one in a series of events organized by the Coalition to Free Masonique Saunders, a loose-knit collaborative that includes members of Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus (BQIC) and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), among others, which has been working to raise funds for Saunders' legal defense (a GoFundMe has raised more than $7,600 as of press time), as well as increase public awareness of the case.

Over the past several months, the group has staged multiple fundraisers and demonstrations, including an April 1 sit-in at Prosecuting Attorney Ron O'Brien's Downtown office. The group has also circulated a petition urging O'Brien to drop the charges against Saunders, to charge Officer Richards in the death of Tate and to conduct an independent investigation into the shooting.

On Tuesday, May 7, members from the Free Masonique coalition will be on hand at Urban Arts Space to kick off the latest iteration of From the Language of Ash, a free reading series organized by poet, cultural critic and occasionalAlive contributor Hanif Abdurraqib. Members of the group also intend to appear in court in a supportive role during Saunders' May 9 hearing.

“After talking with some other organizers … we sort of banded together to fight for her freedom and help her as she tries to survive,” said coalition member and BQIC co-founder Dkéama Alexis. “I think there's a particular violence that happens to black women and girls in our country, especially as it's related to policing and the mentality of policing. It's really striking to me because, of course, she didn't pull the trigger that killed her boyfriend. It was Columbus police who did that. … Pinning the murder on her is just an extension of how far they'll go to evade accountability.” (CPD declined comment, instead referringAlive to O'Brien's office.)

The decision to charge Saunders with felony murder has parallels with recent developments in the much-publicized Ty're King case. In mid-April, the four teenagers who were with King, 13, in the hours before he was fatally shot by police in September 2016, were added as third-party defendants by the city in the civil lawsuit filed by King's grandmother, Dearrea King. If the city or officer is ultimately found liable in the suit, the four teens could be held financially responsible, which some critics view as a means of the city deflecting blame for King's death. (In an emailed statement, Tim Mangan,chief of litigation for the Columbus City Attorney's office, said the addition of the four teenagers was “necessary in order for the Court to find out exactly what happened.”)

While groups like BQIC and SURJ have previously organized around fatal police shootings, notably King and Henry Green, who was also shot and killed by police in 2016, SURJ member Tynan Krakoff said there was an increased urgency around this case. “The stakes in this are higher than in some police shootings because we can still free [Saunders],” Krakoff said. “The sense of urgency is more real to people with this because she's in a cage right now. … We can bring justice to her in a way that is more abstract for people like Julius or Ty're King.”

A memorial for Julius Tate, Jr. on Mount Vernon Avenue, near the home of Masonique Saunders

Following the Tate shooting, a familiar pattern repeated itself in the media, with early articles focused on the juvenile records of both Tate and Saunders, including Saunders' 2014 arrest for assault when, at age 12, she punched a classmate twice in the jaw, and November 2018 theft and assault charges on Tate.

“That initial narrative controls everything,” said attorney Sean Walton, who is representing the families of Henry Green and Ty're King in separate wrongful death lawsuits filed against the city. “A lot of times, the Columbus Division of Police issues an initial statement giving quite a few details about what happened, but it's from their perspective, and it's never going to say, ‘We may have made a mistake,' or give any indication that there could have been wrongdoing on the part of the officer. … Then they talk about the [victim's] criminal history. … If you make them into somebody who was a criminal, a violent offender, then you strip away that humanity. And at that point it becomes good guys versus bad guys.”

In the United States, even flawed individuals are worthy of a vigorous defense, and a person's virtuousness, or lack thereof, is of little consequence in challenging arguably unethical laws. In confronting the felony murder rule and its application in this case, perfect character isn't required of either Tate or Saunders, though multiple people interviewed noted the role perception can have in driving narrative.

“It's just horrifying how Julius Tate can be dehumanized after his death. And how Masonique's history is being trotted out in the streets, as if it justifies what they did to her boyfriend and to her,” said BQIC's Alexis. “It's always unfortunate to have to be in that position of defending black life and humanity. … But by affirming black people's right to live and be free, that is how I counter those narratives.”

Saunders' mother, Danielle Williams, described her daughter as someone who had struggled with some behavioral issues in the past, but who she believed had turned a corner, holding down a series of part-time jobs (Bibibop Asian Grill, a summer job with the Columbus Urban League) while helping care for her younger siblings, including an autistic, seizure-prone brother. Due to Saunders' experiences caring for him, Williams said that Saunders most recently told her that she wanted to pursue a career in special education.

Tate's mother, Jamita Malone, described her son, one of the eldest of seven children, as smart and fiercely protective of his siblings, whom he would regularly assist with their homework. He also loved sports, particularly football and basketball, and he cut grass for money on the side, in addition to working a part-time job at Bibibop.

“He was my first boy, and this is killing me with him not being here,” Malone said. “I just don't understand this world without my son. I don't trust anybody. It makes me look at people differently. … I'm hurt for life, but I have to be here for my other children. I have to be here to get justice for my son. I have to speak up, because that's what Julius would want.”

This story was published May 1, 2019.