A 37-year-old Indiana man will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars for brutally murdering a 10-month-old girl he was babysitting last year and burying the infant’s body in a shallow grave. Starke Circuit Court Judge Kim Hall on Tuesday sentenced Justin Miller to 65 years in prison for the “heinous” murder of young Mercedes Lain in August 2021, the South Bend Tribune reported.
Judge Hall pulled no punches during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, reportedly referring to Miller’s actions as “horrendous” and “unspeakable” before handing down a sentence ensuring he won’t get out of prison until he’s 102 years old.
“This was not a quick, painless situation. This was a vicious, sustained, brutal attack on a 10-month-old child,” Hall reportedly said.
Miller last month pleaded guilty to murdering Mercedes, admitting that he struck the infant he had volunteered to babysit “a couple of times” because he was frustrated by the child’s crying. In exchange for pleading guilty to murder, prosecutors agreed to drop a habitual offender sentencing enhancement that could have added 20 years to Miller’s sentence.
Special Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tami Napier had sought the maximum sentence for Miller, emphasizing the vicious nature of Mercedes’ murder and Miller’s repeated lies to law enforcement about what transpired.
“What you did on this day when you killed this baby was an act that is as bad as a human can commit,” she reportedly told the court.
Mercedes’ grandmother, Angela Owens, reportedly read an emotional victim impact statement during the proceeding in which she berated Miller for taking “everything” from her and her family.
“The rest of our lives are now hell, so why shouldn’t yours be?” she reportedly said, addressing Miller directly from the back of the courtroom.
In his plea agreement, Miller reportedly admitted that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment watching Mercedes in mid-August when he grew frustrated that the baby would not stop crying. Confirming that he was high on synthetic marijuana at the time of the assault, Miller reportedly told the court that he struck Mercedes “a couple of times” to get her to stop crying late on the evening of Aug. 12 or early Aug. 13.
Per South Bend ABC affiliate WBND, Miller said he “backhanded” Mercedes “in the head” multiple times causing the child to hit the wall.
When he awoke on the morning of Aug. 14, Miller said he got out of bed and “rolled a joint of synthetic” before seeing Mercedes’ lifeless body. Upon realizing the child was dead he went to a neighbor’s house and borrowed money for gas, then grabbed the Mercedes’ body and buried her in a remote and densely wooded area in Starke County.
The child’s parents — Kenneth Lain, 41 and Tiffany Coburn, 32 — were also taken into custody and face Level-6 felony charges for neglect of a dependent. They are both scheduled to appear in court on Thursday. Court records obtained by South Bend CBS/Fox affiliate WSBT-TV reportedly show that Lain is seeking to enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors.
As previously reported by Law&Crime, investigators discovered Mercedes’ body on Aug. 18 after authorities issued a Silver Alert and notified the U.S. Marshals Service and FBI of her disappearance.
Court documents said that Lain and Coburn dropped Mercedes off with Miller, whom they referred to as a “family relative,” on Friday, Aug. 13. Miller reportedly offered to give the couple “a break” from parenting because they were having a hard time. But after dropping off Mercedes with Miller, “both parents attempted to get a hold of Miller numerous times and could not contact him,” court documents state.
When they finally reached Miller on Aug. 15, the day he was supposed to bring Mercedes home, he allegedly told the couple that he had left Mercedes with a neighbor because Lain and Coburn weren’t home.
Lain then called 911 and filed a missing persons report.
Investigators located Miller in a Starke County home at approximately 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 16. He was brought to the police department where he allegedly waived his rights and agreed to be interviewed by detectives. Miller told investigators that Kenneth Lain had contacted him on Aug. 12 about purchasing synthetic marijuana, but said the conversation “then turned into the rough time they were having with [Mercedes],” according to a probable cause affidavit. Miller said he eventually told Lain that he would babysit Mercedes “for a few days” so he and Coburn could “have a break.”
According to an affidavit, Miller’s “recollection of events changed several times” during the interview process until Aug. 18, when he told police he woke up to find Mercedes dead on Aug. 14, then disposed of her body in a shallow grave in the woods.
Per the South Bend Tribune, FBI agent Tim Freel testified Tuesday that Mercedes sustained “excessive and pretty insane” injuries, including bleeding in the brain and severe bruising and swelling to her head, face, cheeks, and mouth.
[image via Marshall County Jail, Silver Alert]
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