Ohio v. Reiner
Annotate this Case
532 U.S. 17 (2001)
OCTOBER TERM, 2000
OHIO v. REINER
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF OHIO
No. 00-1028. Decided March 19, 2001
Respondent was tried for involuntary manslaughter in the death of his infant son Alex, who died from "shaken baby syndrome." His defense theory was that Alex was injured while in the care of the family's babysitter, Susan Batt. Batt informed the Ohio trial court before testifying that she intended to assert her Fifth Amendment privilege, and the court granted her transactional immunity. She then testified to the jury that she had refused to testify without a grant of immunity on the advice of counsel, although she had done nothing wrong. The jury convicted respondent, and he appealed. The appeals court reversed, and the State Supreme Court affirmed the reversal on the ground that Batt had no valid Fifth Amendment privilege because she asserted innocence and that the trial court's grant of immunity was therefore unlawful. The court found that the wrongful grant of immunity prejudiced respondent, because it effectively told the jury that Batt did not cause Alex's injuries.
Held: Batt had a valid Fifth Amendment privilege against selfincrimination. This Court has jurisdiction over the Ohio Supreme Court's judgment, which rests, as a threshold matter, on a determination of federal law. See Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U. S. 804, 816. The Fifth Amendment privilege's protection extends only to witnesses who have a reasonable cause to apprehend danger from a direct answer. Hoffman v. United States, 341 U. S. 479, 486. That inquiry is for the court; the witness' assertion does not by itself establish the risk of incrimination. This Court has never held, however, that the privilege is unavailable to those who claim innocence. To the contrary, the Court has emphasized that one of the Fifth Amendment's basic functions is to protect innocent persons who might otherwise be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances. Grunewald v. United States, 353 U. S. 391, 421. Batt had "reasonable cause" to apprehend danger from her answers if questioned at respondent's trial. Thus, it was reasonable for her to fear that answers to possible questions might tend to incriminate her.
Certiorari granted; 89 Ohio St. 3d 342, 731 N. E. 2d 662, reversed and remanded.
The Supreme Court of Ohio here held that a witness who denies all culpability does not have a valid Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Because our precedents dictate that the privilege protects the innocent as well as the guilty, and that the facts here are sufficient to sustain a claim of privilege, we grant the petition for certiorari and reverse.
Respondent was charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of his 2-month-old son Alex. The coroner testified at trial that Alex died from "shaken baby syndrome," the result of child abuse. He estimated that Alex's injury most likely occurred minutes before the child stopped breathing. Alex died two days later when he was removed from life support. Evidence produced at trial revealed that Alex had a broken rib and a broken leg at the time of his death. His twin brother Derek, who was also examined, had several broken ribs. Respondent had been alone with Alex for half an hour immediately before Alex stopped breathing. Respondent's experts testified that Alex could have been injured several hours before his respiratory arrest. Alex was in the care of the family's babysitter, Susan Batt, at that time. Batt had cared for the children during the day for about two weeks prior to Alex's death. The defense theory was that Batt, not respondent, was the culpable party.
Batt informed the court in advance of testifying that she intended to assert her Fifth Amendment privilege. At the State's request, the trial court granted her transactional immunity from prosecution pursuant to Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2945.44 (1999). She then testified to the jury that she had refused to testify without a grant of immunity on the advice of counsel, although she had done nothing wrong. Batt denied any involvement in Alex's death. She testified that she had never shaken Alex or his brother at any time, specifically on the day Alex suffered respiratory arrest. She said she
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