7th Circuit reinstates Myers’ murder conviction in IU student Behrman’s death

The murder conviction against the man found guilty of killing Indiana University student Jill Behrman has been reinstated after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that his counsel was deficient, but not prejudicial.

The appellate panel overturned last year’s grant of habeas relief to John Myers in a Tuesday opinion in the case of John Myers v. Ron Neal, 19-3158.

Indiana Southern District Judge James Sweeney granted habeas relief to Myers in October, finding that his counsel in his 2006 trial was prejudicially deficient when he made false statements to the jury during opening statements and failed to object to two categories of evidence.

Sweeney later ordered that Myers be released from prison pending the state’s appeal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 7th Circuit, however, blocked the order for Myers’ COVID-19 release.

In also overturning the grant of habeas relief, the 7th Circuit panel – judges Joel Flaum, Amy St. Eve and opinion author Michael Scudder – agreed with Sweeney that Myers’ counsel performed deficiently during opening arguments.

“Defense counsel alternatively sought to place blame on Brian Hollars, a Bloomington resident who worked with Behrman at the Student Recreational Sports Center,” Scudder wrote. “But in contending that Hollars was responsible for Behrman’s murder, defense counsel made certain misrepresentations.

“He promised the jury evidence that Hollars and Behrman were romantically involved and were seen fighting the day before she disappeared,” the judge continued. “Counsel also represented that a bloodhound followed Behrman’s scent in the direction of Hollars’s house but that an officer stopped the dog before it could reach the front door.

“All of those promises rang hollow,” Scudder wrote, “as defense counsel never presented any such evidence.”

Additionally, the “starkest example” of deficient performance, the panel held, was the failure of Myers’ counsel to object to testimony that Behrman was raped before she was killed.

But those errors aside, the appellate panel determined the state’s case against Myers was still strong enough to secure a conviction.

“… (E)ven without the testimony about rape, the state painted the pictured about Myers through other means. The jury heard testimony showing that Myers lost his girlfriend, Carly Goodman, and had no luck trying to restore the relationship, including by unexpectedly showing up at her senior class trip and trying to join her at an amusement park in Louisville before being turned away,” Scudder wrote. “The jury also heard from John Roell, who shared a cell with Myers in May 2005, that Myers spoke about Behrman using degrading language and saying that nothing had to happen to her if she would not have said anything – statements evincing Myers’s attempt to exert control over her. With all of this evidence, the state portrayed a defendant who lost control of one relationship and committed a horrific crime as part of trying to exercise control over a young woman of a similar age.”

Also, Scudder continued, “The incriminating statements Myers made to so many different people following Behrman’s disappearance make all the difference in determining whether defense counsel’s errors substantially affected the outcome of the trial. … Aside from these statements to family members, the jury heard from an array of friends, acquaintances, and community members recalling similar comments.

“… Our examination of the record leaves us of the firm conviction that even without counsel’s errors, the jury would have reached the same conclusion and found John Myers guilty of murdering Jill Behrman,” Scudder concluded. “Because of the strength of the evidence presented at trial, our confidence in the jury’s decision is not undermined.”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill – whose office appealed the grant of habeas relief in Myers’ case – celebrated the 7th Circuit’s decision in a Tuesday statement, saying it brings “some solace in knowing the evildoer responsible for her death will stay behind bars as a result of his heinous deeds.”

“From the moment we learned that a 13-year-old conviction was in jeopardy over a federal district court decision with which we disagreed, we coordinated with the prosecuting attorney who tried the case, and we initiated our efforts to ensure that Myers would not leave his prison cell,” Hill said. “May we always remember and honor the bright and energetic young woman who should have enjoyed so many more years on this earth.”

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