7th Circuit halts COVID-19 release for man convicted in IU student’s murder

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from the Indiana Office of the Attorney General.

The man convicted in the 2000 murder of Indiana University student Jill Behrman must stay in prison while his habeas case is on appeal, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in a decision vacating a release order issued less than two weeks ago.

John Myers will remain in the custody of the Indiana Department of Correction while the 7th Circuit considers the appeal of his conditional habeas relief. Judge James Sweeney of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana last month ordered Myers’ release due to COVID-19 concerns, but the 7th Circuit vacated that order on Wednesday.

Myers had argued in Sweeney’s court that he has psoriasis, and the medication he takes to treat his condition, Methotrexate, weakens his immune system, thus putting him at risk of the novel coronavirus. Sweeney determined the virus was a compelling reason to allow for Myers’ release on June 15, even though he had initially agreed to remain in custody pending the appeal.

The appeal at issue was brought by the warden of the Indiana State Prison, who argued before the 7th Circuit on May 26 for the reversal of Sweeney’s grant of habeas relief for Myers.

The warden then argued on June 5 that the district court was without authority to order Myers’ release — only the 7th Circuit or the Supreme Court could do so under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 23(d), he said.

Additionally, even if Sweeney had authority to modify Myers’ custody, there was no reason to do so, the warden claimed. The DOC is aware of Myers’ health condition, and it has taken steps to reduce inmates’ risk of contracting COVID-19.

“The IDOC has protected Myers during the pandemic and will continue to do so,” the warden, represented by the Office of the Attorney General, argued. “He agreed that the initial decision for him to remain in custody was correct. It still is.”

The OAG celebrated the 7th Circuit’s order, noting Myers will now remain in prison for at least 60 days following the end of the state’s appeal of the grant of Myers’ request for a new trial.

“This result is just one, allowing the appellate process to play out properly and giving some peace of mind for Jill’s family and friends,” Steve Creason, the OAG’s chief counsel of appeals, said in a statement.

As he did when Myers’ motion for release was granted, Behrman’s brother, Brian, responded to the 7th Circuit’s Wednesday ruling on Facebook.

“While today’s news certainly is good news, we still aren’t ‘out of the woods’ with the appeals process,” Brian Behrman wrote Wednesday evening. “It seems as though there is always some other appeal that comes up.

“I’ve said it before, and I will probably say it again: there will never be complete closure for us, but there was a small sense of justice for Jill with the news tonight.”

The 7th Circuit did not provide a reasoning for vacating Sweeney’s order for release, writing only that the order was vacated.

The appellate case is John Myers v. Ron Neal, 19-3158.

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