A California woman was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years over the December 2020 strangulation murder of her former stepfather, a judge in San Diego ruled Monday. During her sentencing hearing, she apologized only partially – but insisted the state and the victims’ loved one have it all wrong.
Jade Janks, 39, a onetime in-demand interior designer, says she panicked when she left Thomas Merriman, 64, a butterfly sanctuary nonprofit co-founder, under a pile of trash in their shared driveway.
During her sentencing, the defense was variously contrite and defiant; agreeable and accusatory – insisting that Janks was innocent of murder and determined to appeal the sentence while admitting fault for the way she handled the man’s death. At the same time, each of the three people speaking for the defense referenced allegations that Merriman himself was guilty of an altogether different crime.
Police, prosecutors, and the defendant herself claim that Janks happened upon hundreds of nude photographs of herself on her ailing ex-stepfather’s computer while she was cleaning his house for him.
For the state, those photographs – some of which, she testified, depicted consensual sexual activity with a boyfriend from years past – were motive enough for her to pick Merriman up from a medical facility, ply him with whiskey, and then wringing his neck and cutting off his oxygen supply – while also feeding him prescription drugs to make his death look like an accidental overdose.
Jurors accepted that narrative and convicted Janks of murder in the first degree last December. The defendant claims the disturbing photograph discovery was the reason she failed to call authorities, or anyone else, about the dead man in her driveway. Instead, she covered his body with blankets and boxes. He was found by deputies on New Year’s Day.
“Something happened on this evening and it had a lot to do with her relationship with the victim,” defense attorney Marc Carlos said – referring to the Dec. 31, 2020, revelation. “There is a lot of trauma in Jade Janks’ early life – we have outlined that in our sentencing memorandum to the court. There was some conduct between the victim and Ms. Janks in her teens – early teens. As well as some incidents that occurred after that. And those were the factors that basically went into play on the evening that Mr. Merriman died.”
“Ms. Janks reacted in a way that was completely outside the way she would normally act,” the defense attorney continued. “She had, as the court is aware, she had family members that she could have called; she had lawyers that she could have called; there’s all kinds of people she could have called, however, she panicked under this reaction to the trauma that she had. And, as a result, she did things that made her appear to be complicit in the death of Mr. Merriman.”
The defendant’s father later referred to Merriman as a “sick, perverted individual” in a brief address to the court, calling his daughter’s conviction “an injustice” that “was not won on its merit,” while vowing to fight for Janks’ release during the appeals process.
After rising and wiping her eyes with a tissue to address the court, the defendant was told to sit back down by the judge.
“Tom came into my life when I was just a little girl and exerted influence during that early stage of development when I was just figuring things out,” Janks told the court. “Unfortunately that influence manifested itself into inappropriate touch, coercion, reckless behavior, and complete violation as what I now realize years of psychological manipulation. All of this came crashing down on me when I noticed hundreds of naked photos of myself on his computer and felt shattered.”
“I’m still picking up the pieces and it’s my sincerest hope that over the next few years I can put the pieces back and heal from this trauma,” the soon-to-be-inmate continued. “I’m sorry I didn’t act the way I was supposed to. I think about it every day since.”
The convicted murderess went on to address the victim’s family.
“I understand you hate me for what you believe I did to Tom,” she said. “However, there’s a lot more than you will ever understand.”
Numerous victim impact statements left the condemned woman bawling as she listened to Merriman’s family and friends repeatedly extol him as one of San Diego’s leading lights. Collectively, the victims requested a harsh sentence for their loved one’s convicted killer. At least one victim doubted the allegations against the deceased.
“I don’t believe the negative statements the murderer made about Tom,” one woman said. “I don’t believe she murdered him for the reasons she said she did. It’s a killer’s word against his. And he’s not here to defend himself.”
The judge overseeing the case reserved judgment and was relatively taciturn in response to the dueling nature of the courtroom addresses. He remarked that, in his opinion, the defense made an appropriate showing of “provocation and mitigation that existed…on behalf of Ms. Janks” and that jurors were properly instructed on that evidence.
“[Jurors] considered the provocation,” the judge said, “I think they considered the mitigation. And I think that the jury ultimately determined that it didn’t justify Ms. Janks’ actions. And therefore they found her guilty of first-degree murder. And I do believe the evidence supported their conclusion.”
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