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Judge rejects first plea bargain, accepts plea to more serious charge in Highland County Juvenile Court case

Caitlin Forsha, The Highland County Press

Over the course of approximately an hour and a half Thursday, June 6, Highland County Juvenile Court Judge Kevin Greer rejected an attempted plea bargain, then agreed to accept a plea to a more serious charge, in a case involving a juvenile in the custody of Highland County Children Services accused of rape and gross sexual imposition.

As previously reported, the juvenile in this matter was alleged to have had sexual contact with a child under the age of 13 and was charged in April with the equivalent of first-degree felony rape and third-degree felony gross sexual imposition charges.

The eventual resolution Thursday was that the juvenile pleaded guilty to the rape charge and was ordered to complete sex offender treatment, with a suspended sentence to the Department of Youth Services for a minimum of two years.

During a pretrial hearing May 10, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins said that all parties, including the agency, law enforcement and the victim’s family, were in agreement on a proposed resolution to the case. However, Greer said he would not proceed until the court could get an opinion in writing from Ohio’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel on whether a conflict existed in the case.

In the April pretrial for the juvenile, Greer alluded to a potential need for another attorney to represent Highland County Children Services. A “spirited debate” was held in May, where it was determined that the Highland County Prosecutor’s Office, defense counsel Denny Kirk and Judge Greer had separately reached out to the Disciplinary Counsel’s office, with conflicting results.

During the May hearing, Greer also said he had a copy of a formerly issued opinion from the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct, which he shared with Collins and Kirk. The opinion was provided to The Highland County Press on May 13.

The opinion, issued Oct. 4, 2019, is titled “County Prosecutor’s Office’s Representation of Adverse Clients” and describes whether conflicts of interest exist if a prosecutor’s office “prosecutes a delinquency case against an alleged juvenile offender when the prosecutor also represents the county job and family services department in a matter involving the same juvenile.”

In response to a question from The Highland County Press, the Juvenile Court office confirmed that this opinion “did not resolve the issue” at hand.

The Thursday, June 6 hearing began with Kirk asking if Greer “would entertain the proposed agreement,” and assistant prosecutor James Roeder adding, “Or are we discussing the potential conflict issue?”

Greer said he was “pretty confident there won’t be a meeting of the minds” in relation to the conflict question. He told the attorneys that Joseph Caligiuri of the Disciplinary Counsel’s office had called him and said that they would not be issuing “a written opinion.” Greer said that the Disciplinary Counsel advised “that there clearly is a conflict” with the prosecutor’s office representing both the state and Children Services, “but it was waivable if all parties are in agreement as to a resolution.”

Roeder and Kirk said that they had the same understanding, and Roeder said that with all parties in agreement, it could be “waived at this point.”

“The court has to be on board with that,” Greer said.

Kirk said during the pretrial in May, and again Thursday, that the juvenile — who was present for the June 6 hearing in person — was in agreement for the waiver. “If we’re heading to trial, I think a conflict would exist, and that would change things,” Kirk said.

Greer said, “I would agree with that,” and asked the attorneys for the proposed resolution to the case.

Roeder outlined the proposal for the juvenile to plead guilty to gross sexual imposition, with the rape charge dismissed. The recommended disposition, or sentence, would be for the juvenile to enter a sex offender treatment program for youths through the Butler County Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, with a suspended commitment to the Ohio Department of Youth Services (the prison system for juveniles). A no-contact order between the juvenile and the victim and victim’s family was also recommended.

Greer then spoke for roughly 20 minutes about why he would not agree to that particular resolution, before eventually indicating that he would consider accepting a guilty plea to the rape charge instead.

The judge began by saying that the investigating officer in this case, Highland County Sheriff’s Detective Sergeant Vincent Antinore has “a lot of credibility with this court” and that the judge “gives him a great deal of weight” in making these allegations. Greer added that the prosecutor’s office is also “very thorough and would never file a complaint unless they were satisfied they could prove the charges.” He asked Roeder if a plea deal had been reached due to the state finding they could not in fact prove the charges.

Roeder said there is “no new evidence to suggest the state could not prove” either or both charges as alleged.

Greer then read aloud, in whole or in part, the allegations in the complaint, as well as a detention report about the juvenile; the purposes for juvenile dispositions; the statute that applied to this case had the juvenile been charged as an adult; and a victim impact statement filed by a parent of the victim. He also noted that the circumstances of the case are “a big deal to this court.”

The judge then discussed the options for disposition in this case, Greer said the law provides for the juvenile’s suspended commitment to the Department of Youth Services to be a minimum of six months if pleading guilty to the gross sexual imposition charge.

“Under count two, the minimum commitment to the Department of Youth Services is a range, from one to three years minimum,” Greer said.

As noted by the judge, both charges carry a maximum sentence to age 21.

“The court is of the opinion, for some of the reasons I’ve just given, that if this case goes to trial and the court finds both charges to be true, disposition on count two gives this court far more options,” Greer said.

The judge said that “there is no question” that a “concerted effort” would be made by DYS to release the juvenile from custody “as soon as they can.” Greer pointed out that if accepted the guilty plea to the GSI charge, “this court loses complete authority” over the juvenile once “the minimum term is served.” However, if the juvenile were to plead guilty to rape, the court would have a longer period (one to three years) to “do additional disposition” and would have “far more effective options,” Greer said.

“This type of offense is very hard to fix,” Greer said. “It just is. I’m very concerned this [juvenile] may need more than six months.”

The judge concluded that “on adjudication, I will not accept what the attorneys have worked out.”

From there, Greer went on to address a comment made by Collins at the pretrial hearing in May. The prosecutor said they were treating the juvenile in this case “the same as we would” any other juvenile charged with the same offenses and noted that other juveniles in the permanent custody of HCCS have also been prosecuted in the past, and “it’s never been a problem before.”  

The judge said Thursday said that Collins’ comments were “categorically not true” and that his staff researched cases dating back to 2013 and were unable to find any rape cases involving juveniles in the custody of the Children Services agency. Since 2013, Greer said they found “nine different cases” involving juveniles (not in HCCS custody) charged with rape. Of those, two were dismissed; three pleaded guilty to a lower charge (gross sexual imposition, as proposed in the current case); and four were found guilty or pleaded guilty, according to the judge.

The judge added that “the age disparity is a really big deal” in the current case, as it had the largest gap compared to the other cases found since 2013.

“That’s another reason the proposal for adjudication is not acceptable,” Greer said.

The judge told attorneys that he would accept a version of the agreement for disposition, “but the length of the suspended commitment is the big deal to me.

“That’s where I’ve been from day one,” Greer said.

The judge added he “would accept a plea to count two,” if the parties could reach an agreement and offered to allow them an opportunity to discuss it outside the courtroom.

Kirk asked if Greer would consider dismissing the GSI charge if the juvenile pleaded guilty to rape.

“Yes,” Greer said. “Just so you know, I’m leaning toward a two-year minimum [DYS commitment].”

The judge added that if the parties could not reach an agreement, they would need to decide if special counsel to represent the agency needed to be appointed for a potential trial.

Approximately 25 minutes and an unrelated hearing later, the court returned on the record with a new proposed agreement reached.

Roeder said that under the new agreement, the juvenile would plead guilty to rape, with the state dismissing the GSI charge. The disposition recommendation was the same. Kirk said that his client was in agreement and was also “ready to proceed today” with both adjudication and disposition.

Greer then explained the juvenile’s rights, including right to a trial, as well as the proposed agreement and the allegations. As part of that discussion, Greer pointed out that he “may or may not be” the judge that handles the juvenile’s case in the future, depending on how long it goes, as Greer is in his final term. Kirk also confirmed that he reviewed the same information with the juvenile, who “verbalized understanding of the facts” as alleged.

Before that explanation, Greer asked advocate Lisa Dingey of the Victim Witness office to contact the victim’s parent, who was not present, to see if the parent wanted to make a statement. By the time the judge had finished his explanation, the parent was available to make a statement via phone.

Greer explained the morning’s events to the victim’s parent and the proposed agreement as it currently stood. However, the judge told the parent, “You can request admission to both charges,” and that if the juvenile didn’t agree, Greer was “certainly willing” to proceed with a trial.

The parent said they were “satisfied with” the agreement as presented.  

The parent gave a statement, emotionally discussing the “impact this has had on our family and how difficult it is,” the “guilt, anger and hurt” the parents have experienced and the unknowns of how it may impact the victim moving forward. The parent said that they hoped for “justice for” the victim as well as “rehabilitation for” the juvenile.

After Greer and the victim’s parent finished their conversation, the judge summarized the juvenile’s options before accepting the juvenile’s plea of guilty to rape.

Roeder and Kirk again asked Greer to accept the dispositional agreement as previously outlined.

“There’s nothing good that can be said and no excuse that can be made,” Kirk said. “[The juvenile] has been very cooperative, very polite.

“[The juvenile] does not have any prior delinquency record. It’s a very bad situation.”

The Children Services agency, as well as the juvenile, declined to give a statement.

Greer ordered the juvenile to successfully complete the sex offender program at the Butler County Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, after which Greer said another hearing will be held to determine “what happens next,” including whether the juvenile will be classified as a registered sex offender. The juvenile is to have no contact with the victim and victim’s family.

“This type of behavior is extremely difficult to fix,” Greer told the juvenile. “You could have had a lifetime [prison] commitment in the adult penal system.

“That shows how serious this is. You need to find a way to not act on these urges you have.”

Greer said that if the juvenile “just jumps through hoops” to get through the sex offender treatment program, “it’s not going to help you.

“I know you’ve had a tough way to go,” Greer told the juvenile. “It’s no excuse for behaving how you did.

“You’ve affected a family for the rest of their life. You need to think about that.”

Greer added the juvenile also “hasn’t acted remorseful” in court and told the juvenile not to let past troubles be “a crutch for future behavior.

“If you violate any law or court order, that’s enough for you to go to the prison system of youth for a minimum of two years,” Greer said. “You have my word, based on how offended I am, that’s likely where you’re headed if there’s a violation. I’ll take the mystery out of it for you.”

In response to a request for clarification from Roeder, Greer said the Children Services agency will retain permanent custody of the juvenile until age 18. The judge added that in future hearings, “we may have the same conflict issue” come up again.

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