Following a 2-hour hearing Tuesday morning, Starke County Circuit Court Judge Kim Hall sentenced 27-year-old Justin Miller to 65 years in prison for the August 2021 murder of Mercedes Lain.
Special prosecutor, Marshall Count Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tami Napier presented the State’s evidence by questioning Plymouth Police Detective Ben McIntyre, FBI Agent Tim Freel and Plymouth’s Crime Scene Investigation Jeremy Enyart. Napier had Detective McIntyre detail August 15th, the day 11-month-old Mercedes Lain was reported missing. Police were told Justin Miller was babysitting and that led them to question him. Over several days Miller was interviewed 5-times and lied to the investigators every time.
Napier asked about the autopsy results and was told the child was struck 8 to 9 times with each one of the blows have the chance to be fatal. Mercedes’ head and body has severe bruising and the forensic pathologist told Det. McIntyre the baby would have been in pain for a few hours before the brain swelling would cause her to lose conscious.
Crime Scene Investigator Jeremy Enyart was the one who recovered Mercedes from the shallow grave. He gave the court details about the location of the body and the condition of the baby when he uncovered her remains. Forensic evidence included the baby’s clothes with blood on them, Justin Miller’s jeans with blood on them, and a baby wipe with additional DNA.
After presenting evidence Judge Hall heard a character witness for Miller, his wife who filed for divorce in in June. She told the court she was shocked to learn what her husband had done, that he was a happy, joyful person who was never violent.
The courts then heard from the victim’s representative, Mercedes’ grandmother Angela Owens. She read a statement and told Miller he took her granddaughter’s first step, first birthday, first day of school, prom, graduation, wedding, and life. She said the 45 to 65 years were not enough for what he took from them.
Arguments were heard from the State on the sentencing. Napier listed the aggravating factors including the multiple blows to Mercedes, Justin Miller’s prior criminal history, the age of the victim and that the murder was a crime of violence.
Miller’s attorney Alexander Hoover explained the mitigating factors noting his client agreed to a plea agreement instead of making the Mercedes’ family listen to all the details, he entered a guilty plea in quick fashion, and he did direct police to the body.
After weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors, Judge Hall sentenced Justin Miller to 65 years in prison for the murder of Mercedes Lain with none of it suspended. It was also noted that with the plea he can’t seek an appeal.