'An act as bad as a human can commit:' Plymouth man who killed toddler gets maximum sentence

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Mercedes Lain
Mercedes Lain

KNOX — Heinous. Horrendous. Horrible. Unspeakable. Hard to comprehend.

Those are the words Starke Circuit Court Judge Kim Hall used to describe the murder of 11-month-old Mercedes Lain at the hands of Justin Miller before sentencing him Tuesday to 65 years in prison.

“What you did on this day when you killed this baby was an act that is as bad as a human can commit,” Hall said.

As Hall issued the sentence and Miller was led away, members of Mercedes' family cried and hugged in the gallery of the court room.

More: Parents of murdered Plymouth baby plead guilty to child neglect

Miller, 37, pleaded guilty to killing the child last month in a deal that saw prosecutors dismiss a habitual offender enhancement, which could have added as many as 20 years to his sentence.

After hearing testimony from detectives with the Plymouth Police Department and the FBI — who detailed how Miller initially lied to police about Mercedes’ whereabouts before eventually showing investigators where he left the baby’s body in Starke County — Hall accepted the agreement and sentenced Miller.

Mercedes Lain's grandmother, Angie Owens, left, and aunt, Stacy Milton, speak during a press conference outside the Plymouth Police Department on Tuesday Aug. 17, 2021.
Mercedes Lain's grandmother, Angie Owens, left, and aunt, Stacy Milton, speak during a press conference outside the Plymouth Police Department on Tuesday Aug. 17, 2021.

Tami Napier, a special deputy prosecuting attorney handling the case, asked for the maximum sentence for Miller, noting the brutality of the crime and how he repeatedly lied to investigators.

“This was not a quick, painless situation. This was a vicious, sustained, brutal attack on a 10-month-old child,” she said.

More: Mercedes Lain's babysitter pleads guilty to murder in Plymouth toddler's death

Alexander Hoover, an attorney representing Miller, argued that without Miller’s eventual cooperation, investigators would not have found Mercedes’ body, giving some closure to the family. He also noted how quickly Miller pleaded guilty to the offense.

Ultimately, Hall said, the fact that Mercedes was less than a year old and was dependent on Miller to take care of her led him to issue the 65-year term.

The search for Mercedes

Mercedes' parents met Miller at a motel in Plymouth on Aug. 12 and gave the infant to him to babysit so they "could have a break," court documents say.

The infant's father, Kenneth Lain, was initially in contact with Miller via text, but Miller stopped responding on Aug. 14. The next day, Lain contacted Plymouth police to file a missing person report for his daughter, court documents say. A Silver Alert was issued that night and the search for Mercedes began, with officers from multiple agencies in Marshall County and the FBI getting involved.

Police arrested Miller in the early morning of Aug. 16 in Starke County. Police also arrested Lain and Tiffany Coburn, Mercedes' mother, and both now face child neglect charges.

Detective Ben McIntyre testified Tuesday that Miller was initially evasive about where Mercedes was, saying he dropped the baby off with a woman at a motel in Plymouth.

Eventually, police learned that Miller had stayed at his girlfriend’s apartment in Mishawaka the night of Aug. 13, with Miller and Mercedes sleeping on a futon in one room and his girlfriend in a separate bedroom.

FBI agent Tim Freel testified that Miller and his girlfriend were fighting and at a couple points throughout the night, Miller’s girlfriend went into Miller’s sleeping area to argue, waking up Mercedes.

At some point early in the morning of Aug. 14, Miller hit Mercedes multiple times, causing what McIntyre called “excessive and pretty insane” injuries, including extensive bruising, hemorrhaging in her brain, and cuts and swelling to her eye, cheek, mouth and chin.

Miller eventually led investigators to the area in Starke County, near the intersection of County Road 1025 East and 50 North, where he wrapped Mercedes' body in a pink blanket and covered the site with refuse, including a broken porcelain toilet seat.

Police also testified that they found a number of items in Miller’s car with both his and Mercedes’ blood on them.

After testimony from law enforcement, Mercedes’ grandmother, Angela Owens spoke, saying Miller “took everything” from the child he was supposed to care for.

“The rest of our lives are now hell, so why shouldn’t yours be?” she said, speaking to Miller from the back of the courtroom.

Miller stared straight ahead as she read her statement.

Miller’s wife, who said she is currently filing for a divorce, briefly spoke on his behalf saying he has never been violent before.

“I just don’t understand why this happened,” she said. “That poor baby, she didn’t deserve this.”

Kenneth Lain and Tiffany Coburn are set for hearings this week on child neglect charges. Lain intends to file a plea agreement, records show.

Email Marek Mazurek at mmazurek@sbtinfo.com. Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Judge gives Justin Miller maximum sentence for murder of Mercedes Lain

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