Court reverses murder conviction of Champaign County teen who blamed second personality

Donovan Nicholas stabbed the woman he called mom 60 times before shooting her in 2017.

The Ohio Supreme Court in a split vote reversed the conviction of a Champaign County man who claimed his second personality, “Jeff the Killer,” killed his father’s girlfriend in 2017.

The now 20-year-old Donovan A. Nicholas was a 14-year-old student at Graham Middle School when he was charged with murder and aggravated murder in connection to the 2017 death of 40-year-old Heidi Fay Taylor.

His case will go back to Champaign County’s juvenile court, the justices ruled Friday.

Champaign County assistant prosecutor Jane Napier described the case as “heinous” during oral arguments Friday before the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus.

The night of Taylor’s death, Nicholas told Champaign County dispatchers that his alternative personality killed Taylor, a woman he called “mom.”

“There was the violence of the act, there was the premeditated nature of the act,” Napier said. “The fact that they lived in the same household facilitates the act.”

Napier told justices that Nicholas stabbed Taylor 60 times before shooting her as she was trying to escape.

The Champaign County Juvenile Court transferred Nicholas’ case to adult court in 2018. After he was convicted in adult court that same year, he was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 years.

In a 4-3 decision, Ohio’s highest court reversed the decision of the Second District Court of Appeals to transfer Nicholas’ case from Champaign County Juvenile Court to adult court.

The majority opinion of the justices stated that the juvenile court’s decision to transfer the case was based on a “mischaracterization” of the testimony presented by a court-appointed psychologist and an Ohio Department of Youth Services representative, according to justices’ majority opinion.

Nicholas in 2020 appealed his conviction, his attorneys saying the prosecutor didn’t prove that Nicholas couldn’t be treated in the juvenile court system, according to his appeal.

“He was wearing a glow-in-the-dark dragon T-shirt on the day of the offense in this case. This was a child by any measure,” said Timothy B. Hackett, who was representing Nicholas during Friday’s oral arguments. “Instead of receiving age-specific treatment for serious, severe mental health issues, he is now at Ross Correctional.”

The Champaign County Prosecutor’s Office requested in 2018 that the juvenile court transfer jurisdiction of the case to adult court. Ohio Revised Code allows juvenile judges to transfer some juveniles to adult court.

Transfers can occur if the juvenile court finds the child was at least 14 at the time of the offense, there is probable cause to believe the child committed the charged act, and the “child is not amenable to care or rehabilitation” within the juvenile system, according to the state’s code. Community safety also can be considered.

Champaign County assigned juvenile psychologist Daniel Hrinko to evaluate Nicholas, and Hrinko diagnosed Nicholas with dissociative-identity disorder: a condition where a person has two or more distinct personalities.

Hrinko told the juvenile court that the identity disorder could be treated in a residential setting with the goal of “reintegrating personalities,” according to the state supreme court’s majority opinion.

Sarah Book, a leader of the state’s Department of Youth Services, also testified that the state’s facilities offer psychological and psychiatric services that could be used to treat a patient diagnosed with Nicholas’ disorder.

“It was upon those unsupported findings that the court determined that Nicholas was not amenable to care or rehabilitation in the juvenile system,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in the state supreme court’s majority opinion.

Three justices voted against reversing the decision of lower courts, asserting Champaign County’s juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in ordering the case bound to adult court.

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