LIMA — With the recent events in Minneapolis providing a racially-charged background, a Lima man was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison for the robbery, kidnapping and extortion of a former University of Northwestern Ohio student in 2018.
Justin Meeks, 31, of Lima, faced a possible maximum prison sentence of 21 years but instead was handed the minimum amount of time behind bars after the facts of the case were brought into question repeatedly during his sentencing hearing. The penalty was handed down by Judge Jeffrey Reed following emotional and racially-tinged statements from several persons in the courtroom.
Meeks in March pleaded no contest to felony charges that alleged he held former UNOH student James Featherstone against his will, robbed him, forced him to withdraw money from an ATM machine and ordered him under the threat of death to obtain additional cash.
According to court documents, on Super Bowl Sunday 2018 Featherstone was driving on Allentown Road when his vehicle struck the rear of a white Mercury Mountaineer driven by Meeks. Featherstone told police he approached Meeks’ vehicle but was told to “get out of here.”
Featherstone, a New York resident, said he drove back to campus and once again encountered the Mountaineer. He said a black male exited the vehicle and approached his pickup truck before assaulting him and forcing him out of his vehicle and into the Mountaineer.
A second black male, later identified as Tyler Lee, then got into Featherstone’s truck and both vehicles traveled to a nearby Speedway gas station. Featherstone reportedly was ordered to go into the gas station and remove money from an ATM machine.
Meeks, however, disputed several of those allegations while addressing the court prior to sentencing. He maintained that he did not tell Featherstone to leave the scene of the accident and tracked the college student down only in an attempt to recover money to fix the damage to his vehicle.
“(Featherstone) begged me not to call the police; he said he would pay for the damages,” Meeks told the judge. “I was wrong for the assault. I tried to take the law into my hands and I take responsibility for that.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Randall Basinger said he was “concerned” with statements contained in Meeks’ pre-sentence report alleging that the incident was “partially racially-charged.”
“This was not a case where race played a part,” Basinger said. “This incident had a significant impact on the victim. He left the university and went back to New York and still suffers from mental and physical anguish.”
A supporter in the courtroom, Warren Pugsley, spoke at length about his “frustration” with the system.
“Why are we not considering both these young men victims? Justin was a victim, too. His car got hit,” Pugsley said. “The perpetrator believes he hears ‘leave before the police get here’ and Justin then follows someone who is running away. And this is where we end up? This is the problem with the system. This is a shame,” Pugsley continued. “It’s not right, and the sad part is you all know it’s not right.”
Defense Attorney Steve Chamberlain said he was “not trying to raise the issue of race” but expressed his frustration that “our entire criminal justice system — for good or ill — is driven by prosecutors. And the subtext of what Mr. Basinger is saying is, ‘throw him in prison for as long as you can.’ To the court’s credit, I have never detected a bias or prejudice in this court and I would ask for the minimum sentence.”
Reed also addressed the issue of race, noting that “what happened in Minneapolis” with the death at the hands of police of George Floyd “is the most terrible thing that could have happened. Not that that has anything to do with what is happening today, although some people apparently feel it does.”
After Reed handed down the minimum sentence, Meeks’ family and friends applauded and said “thank you.”