Criminal Justice

Murder conviction vacated on basis of ineffective lawyering that included false statements to jury

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A federal judge in Indianapolis has cited ineffective assistance of counsel in vacating the 2006 murder conviction of a man accused of killing an Indiana University student.

U.S. District Judge James Sweeney vacated the conviction of John Myers II in a Sept. 30 decision, citing deficient performance by his pro bono lawyers, report Time, the Associated Press and the Indianapolis Star in stories here and here.

Myers will be released from prison within 120 days unless prosecutors decide to retry him.

Myers was convicted of killing IU student Jill Behrman while she was out for a bike ride in May 2000. Her remains weren’t discovered until 2003. Prosecutors contended that Myers killed Behrman because of anger over a recent breakup with his girlfriend.

Myers’ lawyers contended that the real killer could have been Behrman’s work supervisor or could have been a woman who confessed and then recanted.

The woman who confessed said she and two other people struck Behrman with a car, stabbed her with a knife, wrapped her in plastic tied with bungee cords and dumped her body in a creek. Investigators drained part of the creek and found a knife, bungee cord and plastic. But Behrman’s body was found in a wooded area, and investigators concluded that she had been shot.

Sweeney, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said the lawyers were defective for:

• Making false assertions in opening statements to jurors. Lead defense counsel Patrick Baker told jurors that a search dog had alerted at the home of the victim’s supervisor, but the dog was called off. But a bloodhound did not follow Behrman’s scent to the supervisor’s residence nor was any bloodhound pulled away from the residence by police. Evidence was never introduced to support the statements, undermining the trial counsel’s credibility with the jury, Sweeney said.

• Failing to object to bloodhound evidence, which Indiana common law deems too unreliable to be admissible. Prosecutors introduced the evidence to show that Behrman rode her bicycle north of her house, rather than south, which would undermine the retracted confession and place Behrman near Myers’ home. The north route, however, did place Behrman near the home of her supervisor.

• Failing to object to evidence that the victim was raped before her murder, even though physical evidence was lacking. The state’s expert had testified that dumping a body in a remote spot “is a fairly classic for a rape homicide.” The failure to object allowed prosecutors to establish motive when there was none, Sweeney said. “Simply put,” Sweeney said, “the rape evidence was the only evidence that allowed the jury to make sense of why Mr. Myers would have randomly murdered a stranger riding a bicycle near his residence.”

Prosecutors had introduced evidence that witnesses reported seeing a white “commercial looking” Ford van in the area of Behrman’s disappearance that resembled a van that Myers van had access to through his work. He was on vacation at the time of the disappearance. Myers’ aunt had said Myers feared being blamed for the disappearance, and she had noticed that Myers’ father was unusually agitated in Myers’ presence. He told his grandmother that he had done “bad things.” In addition, a 12-gauge shotgun owned by Myers’ brother had been missing for a few years before the murder.

Myers also made statements about the case to co-workers and family members. He told his mother that he found panties and a bone in a tree when he was fishing near a creek that might be helpful in the case. He told a corrections officer while in jail on another charge that he found letters in food trays that could be connected to the disappearance.

Lead defense counsel Baker told Time in a statement that he believes in Myers’ innocence, and he is pleased with the ruling. “We fight for the constitutional rights of our clients, and when necessary, take on difficult and unpopular causes in the interest of justice,” he said. “We are very pleased the court’s order has given John Myers and his family renewed hope.”

Molly Walker-Wilson, a law professor at St. Louis University, told Time that it’s rare for murder convictions to be overturned for ineffective assistance. “Statistically speaking, the vast majority of such attempts fail,” she said.

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