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December 7th, 2018 Julius Tate Jr. was killed by Columbus police. Months after this tragedy his girlfriend, Masonique Saunders, remains in juvenile detention; charged with murder.
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, a SWAT officer, who posed as a potential buyer, agreed to meet Tate to purchase an item with cash near the intersection of Mount Vernon and North Champion Avenues. 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.
Tate’s mother, Jamita Malone received a phone call informing her that her son, Julius Tate, Jr., 16, had been shot by police and transported to Ohio Health 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.”
The prosecutor’s office alleges that Tate and Saunders were both involved in a 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.”
Just 6 days after Tate was killed, officers with the Southern Ohio Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team arrested Masonique Saunders. Police allege she was Tate’s accomplice and charged 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, which will determine if she will be tried as an adult.
***Saunders’ arrest shines a spotlight on the little-discussed felony murder rule, which has received increased attention in recent years. Ohio 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.
The United States is currently the only country where the felony murder rule still exists.
In Saunders case, the fact that Tate’s death was the result of a police sting makes a felony murder charge troubling, Professor Guyora Binder claims. He is an educator at the University at Buffalo School of Law and an expert on felony murder.
“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.”
Protestors have been gathering since March in honor of Masonique Saunders. Poster boards with the messages: “Free Masonique”; “Justice 4 Julius” and “Blue Lives Murder have been created to aid in the fight. On, April 7th a march and demonstration was carried out in Downtown Columbus.
“The best way to face tragedy is with fists up, fighting,” said organizer Blizzard Wilcher. “Have [Saunders] feel your support, your presence, your energy.”
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 account was also created and at this point has raised more than $7500.
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.
Members from the Free Masonique Coalition 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.”
***Following the Tate shooting, the media focused on the juvenile records of both Tate and Saunders; attempting to paint them as bad people.
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.
“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.”
Tate’s mother is broken. And unfortunately so is the mother of Masonique Saunders.
“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.”