Marilyn Behrman got word first thing Tuesday morning that the man convicted of killing her 19-year-old daughter might be getting out of prison — soon.
Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega delivered the news in a phone call, news that a federal court judge the day before had issued a 147-page ruling essentially freeing 43-year-old John Myers from the Indiana State Prison.
The judge determined that Myers, of Ellettsville, was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated because of his lawyer’s actions during the trial. The judge ordered that the inmate be released.
Sonnega, who prosecuted the case in 2006, has 120 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling. “Needless to say, we are all disappointed with the outcome as we believed that after 13 years the jury’s guilty verdict was final,” he said in a statement.
He will confer with the victim’s family and the state attorney general before deciding whether to pursue a new trial.
Marilyn Behrman said the development took her by surprise, coming almost two decades after Jill’s disappearance and murder, and 13 years into Myers’ 65-year-sentence.
With good time credit, department of correction records had shown a June 8, 2037, release date for Myers.
Behrman had not read the judge’s lengthy ruling, which lets Myers out 18 years early.
“I had no idea this was happening,” she said Tuesday. “It was so unexpected.”
She wonders what will come next, and is ready.
“I guess this means it could end up going back for another trial, truly for me a step back in time,” she said. “I have come a long way since that happened. But whatever it ends up being, that will be it.
“This is my life. I already deal with the loss of Jill day in and day out.”
She said if a new trial is ordered, Myers could opt to plead guilty, “but I doubt he would ever admit he did anything.”
Jill Behrman had just finished her freshman year at Indiana University when she went missing on a morning bike ride May 31, 2000. A farmer found her Cannondale bicycle in a field along Maple Grove Road a few days later.
The search for Jill continued until turkey hunters discovered her remains nearly three years later in a wooded area of Morgan County. She had been shot in the head with a .12-gauge shotgun.
Myers’ past attempts to have his conviction reversed, including the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2015 denial to review the case, proved unsuccessful. Seven years before that, the state appeals court upheld the conviction.
And a 2013 petition for a new trial filed by the state public defender’s office — based on ineffective counsel — was denied as well, after days of testimony rehashing details of the case.
“The court’s findings stand. (Patrick) Baker presented a fair trial for Myers. An unfavorable result always brings out these issues,” former Morgan County Judge Tom Gray wrote in denying that request.
He acknowledged issues with Baker’s representation.
“The court agrees that there were instances where trial counsel may not have performed as we would have hoped,” Gray concluded, convinced of Baker’s “sincerity and of his efforts on behalf of the petitioner (Myers).”
But in Monday’s lengthy ruling, Judge James R. Sweeney of the U.S. District Court for the southern district of Indiana wrote that Myers’ representation by Baker was egregious and violated Myers’ rights.
“The court concludes that Mr. Myers received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial in violation of his sixth amendment rights,” the ruling states. “Most notably, Mr. Myers’s counsel made false statements to the jury during opening arguments. He also failed to object to two significant categories of evidence that should not have been presented to the jury.
“In the end, these serious errors all but destroyed the defense that trial counsel presented to the jury and tainted the entire trial.”
In 2011, the Indiana Supreme Court disciplinary commission ruled Baker had violated the professional code of conduct, and suspended his license to practice law for six months. The commission ruled that Baker had solicited Myers with a promise of free representation and also that he misled jurors with theories of the crime without presenting evidence to support them.
During a hearing in the case two years later, Baker apologized to the Behrman family for things he intimated about their daughter during the trial. He said he was sorry to Myers and his family as well, admitting he should have done a better job.
“I want to apologize to the Myers family, to you and Johnny,” he said from the witness chair in a Morgan County courtroom. “There are things I should not have done ethically. ... I have had a hard time forgiving myself for some of that.”
Myers maintained his innocence throughout his two-week trial in Morgan County, where Jill Behrman’s body was found. Jurors deliberated just 50 minutes before returning a guilty verdict, which all 12 had agreed to on the first vote.
Several jurors told reporters it was Sonnega’s closing statement, which was not part of the evidence in the case, that sealed Myers’ fate, the way he outlined how the state’s theory and circumstances fit together.
Sonnega knew from the start that the case against Myers would be difficult to prove given the lack of direct evidence — no shotgun, no DNA, no witnesses.
“It’s reassuring to hear a jury say ‘guilty’ when you have no physical evidence,” Sonnega said after the verdict was announced in October 2006. “We always believed we had the right person. And a lot of people were praying for justice.”
The court ruling notes that a new trial “will likely come only at considerable cost — to the state, yes, but, more important, to the victim’s family and community still wounded by their tragic loss. Such costs do not enter into the constitutional analysis; and yet, the court cannot help but express its empathy for those who must bear them for the sake of our Constitution and its protection.”
After the verdict, Myers’ family said they believed in his innocence and vowed to find the truth and someday exonerate him. “We want justice for Jill, but we also want justice for John,” Jodie Myers of Ellettsville told reporters after her son’s conviction. “It does feel like an uphill battle,” she said 13 years ago. “But I know we have the truth on our side.”
Tuesday afternoon, she stepped outside the rural Ellettsville house where she and her husband raised their kids to tell a reporter it’s too soon to talk about the possibility her son is coming home.
She held her palms together in a gesture of prayer, turned and went back inside.