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Bill Toughening Murder Sentences Expected At Ohio Legislature

A photograph of Justin Back, signed in memorial by friends and community members, hangs in the home of Sandy and Mark Case.
Jerry Kenney/WYSO

A bill known as “Justin’s Law” will be introduced to the Ohio legislature soon.  The bill would allow for stiffer penalties for adults and juveniles convicted of aggravated murder.

About a year a ago, two 19-year-old men broke into the Warren County home of 18-year-old Justin Back. They stole some minor possessions and murdered Back.    

Following Justin’s death, his parents were surprised to learn that their son’s killers, if convicted, could be eligible for parole after 20 years.  They approached State Representative Ron Maag about extending mandatory prison terms for murder. Maag is expected to introduce a bill - HB646 - to the Ohio legislature in the next month. 

“I think it’s a good bill. I mean, it protects law abiding citizens from the predators that might get out of prison," he said. "These kids didn’t have to kill Justin. They had every opportunity to go back to that house and break in steal what they thought was valuable in there, but they planned to kill him.  That was their plan from the start."

The bill would also allow juveniles to get life with out parole. 

Dr. Frances T. Cullen teaches criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and says it’s unclear that longer sentences would have any effect as a deterrent.

"First, before passing a law of this sort, the legislature should commission a study to examine how many cases it will affect, its likely impact on public safety, and its cost to the state," he said. "The decision should be based on evidence and not on conjecture. and believe judges already have the necessary tools to deal with serious crimes like murder."

In the end, Back’s killers received the highest possible sentences for their crime. One got the death penalty—the other received life without parole. Cullen believes mandatory sentencing wouldn't allow for varying circumstances in other cases. 

He says of the Back case, "The justice system understood that this was a special case that warranted a special kind of punishment.  But other cases may be different and we need to trust those in the justice system to use their discretion to make appropriate decisions. 

Justin's mom, Sandy Case, says her son was brutally murdered - stabbed twenty-one times - before his body was taken from their home and dropped in a nearby county.  But she says "Justin's law isn't about revenge.

She says of the current twenty year minimum sentence for aggravated murder, "Justin's life was more than that. Anyone's  life is worth more than that." She adds, "If just one life can be saved from this bill, Justin won't have died in vain."

Jerry Kenney was introduced to WYSO by a friend and within a year of first tuning in became an avid listener and supporter. He began volunteering at the station in 1991 and began hosting Alpha Rhythms in February of 1992. Jerry joined the WYSO staff in 2007 as a host of All Things Considered and soon transitioned into hosting Morning Edition. In addition to now hosting All Things Considered, Jerry is the host and producer of WYSO Weekend, WYSO's weekly news and arts magazine. He has also produced several radio dramas for WYSO in collaboration with local theater companies. Jerry has won several Ohio AP awards as well as an award from PRINDI for his work with the WYSO news department. Jerry says that the best part of his job is being able to talk to people in the community and share their experiences with WYSO listeners.