COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) - The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the death sentence of a man who was convicted of the brutal murder of a childhood friend, rejecting his request for leniency based on his claim that he did not touch the murder weapon.
In a unanimous decision, the state’s high court refused to reverse Austin Myer's conviction and the imposition of the death penalty.
The panel balanced the aggravating circumstances in the case with mitigating factors, including the fact that Myers had just turned 19 when he planned and helped carry out the murder of 18-year-old Justin Back with his co-conspirator Timothy Mosley. Mosley avoided the death penalty after reaching a plea deal to testify in Myers' trial.
Myers, 23, of Warren County, asked the court to reconsider his sentence because he had spent time in psychiatric care and struggled with mental issues after his parents had divorced.
His case made international news when he became the youngest man on Ohio’s death row.
Mosley received a life sentence even though he had stabbed Back to death. Myers argued that his sentence was unfair because he was less culpable for the killing than Mosley and did not know that Mosley had a knife until he pulled it out and stabbed the victim in the neck.
Explaining the court's decision, Justice Patrick DeWine wrote that Myers conceived of the plot and had taken an active role in the killing by holding Back as Mosley stabbed him 21 times.
“We find little in Myers’s history, character, and background that is mitigating,” DeWine wrote in the 60-page opinion. “He came from a broken home, and the circumstances under which his parents divorced must have been painful. But he had a loving family and a middleclass upbringing that included taking music lessons. He was also a gifted student. He had advantages in life that few capital defendants have had.”
Though the court considered Myers’ age, it was not enough to reverse his death sentence, DeWine added, noting that the court had imposed death sentences on other 19-year-olds in murder cases.
The Ohio Supreme Court also rejected Myers’ claim that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Even though Myers was not the actual killer, that does not mean the sentencing court could not impose the death penalty, DeWine wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned executions only in cases involving defendants under the age of 18.
Three years ago, a jury found Myers guilty of aggravated murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, grand theft of a firearm, tampering with evidence, safe cracking and abuse of a corpse after Myers fired two shots into Back's body using a gun stolen from his house.
Myers had gone to Back’s home on Jan. 28, 2014, in southwestern Ohio to rob and kill Back, a high school graduate who was about to enter the Navy.
The two teens killed Back at his Wayne Township home and stole a safe. They went to a Lowe’s hardware store in Trotwood to purchase wire to strangle Back, as well as septic enzymes, ammonia and rubber gloves to dispose of the body.
At first, Mosley tried to strangle Back with the wire after he had reached into his fridge for a drink. When that failed, Mosley stabbed Back after he begged the two teenagers to spare his life.
Back’s body was found in West Alexandria – 20 miles west of Dayton and 50 miles from Back’s home – after the two men had taken a gun, the safe and clothes to make it appear like Back had run away from the home he shared with his parents.
Myers is on death row at the Chillicothe Correction Institution. The court scheduled his execution for July 20, 2022, but an appeal will likely push that date back.
Mosley, now 23, is serving his sentence at the Ross Correctional Institution.
Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said he was pleased with the court's ruling. Under Ohio law, Myers' argument that he had never touched the knife was not a "terribly good argument," he said.
"I think they agreed with our assessment, which is that when you look at overall culpability with respect to the death of Justin Back that Austin Myers was even more culpable than Tim Mosley," Fornshell said in a phone interview Thursday.
He noted that Mosley had cooperated with prosecutors and took responsibility but that Myers had continued to lie and blame others for his conviction.
"Austin Myers himself made the decision that he had no interest whatsoever in doing anything other than taking the matter to trial, and even when he was convicted, he was still defiant," Fornshell said.
Myers’ attorney Tim McKenna was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
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