Ohio Supreme Court to hear arguments in appeal of Niles teen’s murder conviction

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Jacob LaRosa is appealing a January decision by the Trumbull County 11th District Court of Appeals

(WKBN) – The Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Jacob LaRosa, who was convicted of the murder of his elderly neighbor while he was a teenager.

Arguments will begin in his case at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

LaRosa is appealing a January decision by the Trumbull County 11th District Court of Appeals. That court upheld his life prison sentence.

At issue is whether the seizure of personal items from a hospital room violated LaRosa’s right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

LaRosa was taken to the hospital after returning home with what appeared to be injuries. He had been drinking heavily with friends that night on March 31, 2015.

While he was at St. Joseph Warren Hospital, police became aware of the murder of his 94-year-old neighbor, Marie Belcastro. The woman’s house and been broken into, and she had been beaten to death.

Police then suspected LaRosa of involvement in the crime.

According to LaRosa’s brief, an officer at the hospital took long strands of hair from the sheet where LaRosa was sitting. Later, the officer had his mother leave the room.

Some of LaRosa’s clothing items were taken as evidence, as well as a washcloth used by a nurse to clean the teen.

LaRosa was questioned by police at the hospital, and search warrants were obtained for swabs of his mouth, hands and genitals.

Before trial, LaRosa’s lawyer asked the court in December 2017 to suppress statements LaRosa made to police officers and the evidence that was gathered. The court denied the motion, ruling in part that there was no government action in the seizure of LaRosa’s boxer shorts and underwear, he had no expectation of privacy in his personal effects and clothing when he arrived at the emergency room, and the evidence from the washcloth would have been discovered in other ways.

LaRosa’s argument is that hospital staff have a duty to protect a patient’s personal property and not surrender it to police. He also argues that a warrant for swabs of his hands didn’t permit scrapings from under his nails and that evidence should have been blocked from evidence at trial.

Prosecutors say, however, that restrictions on searches and seizures apply only to government actions. The seizure of the clothing wasn’t at the state’s direction, prosecutors added.

The prosecutor argues that, even without the clothing, “overwhelming evidence” supported LaRosa’s guilt.

Liquor bottles were taken from Belcastro’s home, and one bottle found outside her house contained Belcastro’s DNA, LaRosa’s DNA, and his fingerprint, the prosecutor maintains. The office adds that, among other evidence it would have presented at trial, a neighbor’s security video would show LaRosa leaving Belcastro’s house with the liquor bottles.

The office also concludes that the fingernail scrapings were within the scope of the hand swabs allowed by the search warrant because hand swabs reasonably include evidence from the fingernails.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case by videoconference before making a ruling.

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