A divided Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled 4-3 that the state failed to prove the elements of aggravated murder in a Cleveland club shooting case.
“The evidence did not show that this killing was done with prior calculation and design as required to sustain a conviction for aggravated murder,” Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote on behalf of the high court’s majority. “The elements of purpose and of prior calculation and design are distinct, and the state must prove both to support a conviction of aggravated murder under Ohio Revised Code 2903.01.”
On appeal from the state, the high court reviewed the case against Dajhon Walker, who killed Antwon Shannon during a bar fight.
Case summary states that, in the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 2012, at the Tavo Martini Lounge in Cleveland, a fight broke out between two groups on the dance floor.
Although the state presented witness testimony and the testimony of detective and forensic experts during trial, the primary evidence of the sequence of events came from video footage recorded by 16 surveillance cameras located in and around the club.
After the ruckus began, Walker could be seen grabbing at his waistband before slipping and falling over, causing others to fall on top of him. After everyone was able to extricate themselves from the pile, they moved to different corners of the room, with Walker moving out of the frame behind a pillar.
The group was eventually propelled to where Walker had gone and the footage showed a gunshot flash a few seconds later. Walker then appeared in the frame, fumbling with his waistband and hurrying out of the area with a friend.
Walker was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of aggravated murder, felony murder, four counts of felonious assault and having a weapon under disability.
But upon appeal to the 8th District Court of Appeals, his aggravated murder conviction was overturned with a three-judge appellate panel finding that the state failed to establish that the murder was premeditated.
The state appealed from that decision but the Supreme Court’s majority sided with the appellate panel.
“Under the aggravated-murder statute, the state was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Walker purposely, and with prior calculation and design, caused the death of Antwon Shannon,” Lanzinger wrote. “… The phrase ‘prior calculation and design’ by its own terms suggests advance reasoning to formulate the purpose to kill.
“Evidence of an act committed on the spur of the moment or after momentary consideration is not evidence of a premeditated decision or a studied consideration of the method and the means to cause a death.”
The majority held that prior-calculation-and-design offenses will necessarily include purposeful homicides, but not all purposeful homicides have an element of prior calculation and design.
Traditionally, courts consider three factors in order to determine whether a defendant premeditated a murder: whether the defendant and victim knew each other and, if so, whether their relationship was strained, whether the defendant gave thought to choosing the murder weapon or murder site and whether the act was drawn out or an instantaneous eruption of events.
In Walker’s case, the high court noted that Walker and Shannon did not know each other and that the killing was the result of a spontaneous bar fight. It also held that Walker did not give any thought to choosing the murder site or the murder weapon since the gun was on Walker before he was aware of any tension in the room.
“There is no evidence that Walker and his friends devised a scheme to shoot Shannon and then carried it out,” Lanzinger wrote. “The plan that existed among Walker’s group that evening was a plan to commit felonious assault, not murder.”
According to the majority’s analysis of the video, nothing was carefully planned once the fight broke out. Rather, “it quickly turned into a free-for-all.”
Considering the evidence, the majority affirmed the judgment of the 8th District court vacating Walker’s aggravated murder conviction.
In his dissent, Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote that the majority “misapplied the standard of review” because it was required to view all of the evidence in a light most favorable to the state and give significant deference to the judgment of the jury.
“The jury reasonably concluded that by participating in a coordinated and preplanned attack against Shannon … and by drawing a firearm, withdrawing from the attack, and waiting behind a pillar for 20 seconds before shooting Shannon in the back, Walker committed aggravated murder with prior calculation and design,” O’Donnell wrote. “The pattern exhibited by the appellate court in failing to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the state when considering a sufficiency challenge demonstrates a lack of understanding of the applicable legal standards and in my view results in a miscarriage of justice.”
Justices Sharon Kennedy and Judith French joined O’Donnell’s minority opinion.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul Pfeifer and William O’Neill joined Lanzinger to form the majority.
Walker’s felony murder conviction was upheld and his case was remanded for resentencing.
The case is cited State v. Walker, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-8295.