Masonique Saunders Pleads Guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter, Aggravated Robbery
The case of Masonique Saunders has reached a conclusion.
A 17-year-old Near East Side resident, Saunders was initially charged with the murder of her boyfriend Julius Tate Jr., who was fatally shot by Columbus police officer Eric Richards in December. On Thursday, May 9, she pled guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter as well as two charges of aggravated robbery.
The shooting occurred during a sting operation on Friday, Dec. 7, at the intersection of Mount Vernon and North Champion Avenues on the Near East Side. The operation, carried out by Columbus SWAT officers, was part of an undercover investigation into a series of aggravated robberies in the area. According to Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien’s office, the robberies occurred during transactions to sell cell phones that had been advertised on a phone app.
“The same name and phone number used by Ms. Saunders and Mr. Tate for the transaction with the undercover officer had been used on November 28, 2018,” says a release from O’Brien’s office, “at the same location where a woman with a child was robbed and pistol whipped.”
Six days after the Dec. 7 incident, Saunders, an accomplice during the robbery, was charged with Tate’s murder under Ohio’s felony murder rule, which states that no person “shall cause the death of another as a proximate result of the offender’s committing or attempting to commit an offense of violence that is a felony of the first or second degree.”
This essentially means that if a person is killed while committing a crime, their accomplice can be charged with their murder. O’Brien’s reasoning for applying the rule in this shooting by police is that, had Saunders and Tate not been committing the crime, Tate would not have been shot and killed by Officer Richards.
The law (abolished in several other states or otherwise restricted) stipulates that if a person is killed in the commission of a crime such as this, their accomplice(s) can be charged with murder. The controversy is a) the girl’s age, b) the extent of her involvement was arranging the meeting via cell phone, and c) the boy was murdered by CPD, which has a checkered history in terms of excessive force and brutality. She entered into a plea deal to avoid being tried for murder as an adult.
“The gap between incident and arrest indicates an intentional decision on behalf of the police and Prosecutor Ron O’Brien to pivot the blame onto a teenager,” says Maria Joranko, an activist involved with the Coalition to Free Masonique.
Comprised of activists from local groups like Black, Queer, Intersectional Collective (BQIC) and Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), the Coalition to Free Masonique formed to raise funds for legal aid for Saunders and lead actions on her behalf. On April 1, they held a sit-in at O’Brien’s office. On Saturday, May 7, the coalition and other supporters led a rally during Gallery Hop in the Short North, kicking off their National Week of Action in support of Saunders. During the protest, four protesters, two of whom had chained themselves to a car blocking the roadway, were maced and arrested.
Dkéama Alexis, a coalition member and organizer with BQIC, says the Gallery Hop rally was “a way to interrupt business as usual and get as many eyes on the case as possible. While taking the space we raised our demands, that Masonique be released immediately and all charges against her be dropped.”
They also demanded for the indictment of officer Richards and for the launch of an independent investigation into the death of Tate.
On May 9, protesters again assembled, this time in front of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, where Saunders had a hearing to determine if she would be tried as an adult (she was 16 at the time of the shooting). Today, Saunders admitted guilt to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery from the Dec. 7, 2018 incident, as well as the Nov. 28 aggravated robbery. The charges carry a recommended sentence of three years in juvenile detention, with eligibility for early release after two years conditioned on good behavior.
“Prosecutor Ron O’Brien bullied this teenager into accepting charges for a murder that Officer Eric Richards committed,” the Coalition to Free Masonique said in a statement. “This is one of many instances of the racist, classist carceral system pressuring Black people into needlessly accepting punitive measures. By scapegoating her and disappearing her behind bars, Ron O’Brien has allowed another killer cop to evade accountability.”
Alexis says the coalition is regrouping to figure out how to further advocate for Saunders while she’s incarcerated, “as well as figuring out what we can do about the felony murder law” itself.
To keep up with the coalition, visit their website.