Melissa Hartley, mother of Layla Connors, speaks during Dennis Justus’ sentencing May 18 in the 16th Circuit Court in Mount Clemens.

Melissa Hartley, mother of Layla Connors, speaks during Dennis Justus’ sentencing May 18 in the 16th Circuit Court in Mount Clemens.

Photo by Brian Wells

Judge sentences Roseville man to 12 1/2 to 30 years for 1-year-old’s death

By: Brian Wells | Roseville-Eastpointe Eastsider | Published June 8, 2022

 Dennis Justus is seated in the jury box during his sentencing Wednesday, May 18, in the 16th Circuit Courthouse in Mount Clemens.

Dennis Justus is seated in the jury box during his sentencing Wednesday, May 18, in the 16th Circuit Courthouse in Mount Clemens.

Photo by Brian Wells

ROSEVILLE — When Melissa Hartley left for work in December 2021, her daughter, Layla Connors, was sitting on the floor, smiling and laughing, while playing with a doll.

“I never thought that would be the last time I see my daughter,” Hartley said, addressing a Macomb County Circuit Court judge May 18 at the sentencing of Dennis Justus.

Layla, 1, sustained injuries when Justus — a friend of the family who was watching her while her mother was at work — picked her up to play a game they called “rocket ship,” during which he would play with her in the air above his head.

Several minutes later, Justus put her down and worked to clean the apartment when he allegedly heard a thud, Andrew Geyer, Justus’ attorney said. He placed Layla on her side so she could breathe, but when it wasn’t working, he took her to her grandmother, who lived across the street, and Layla was taken to the hospital.

Hartley was gone for less than an hour before she received a call that something was wrong with Layla. She hoped it was just a fall, or a seizure, but at the hospital, the doctor told her otherwise.

“When the doctor came in Layla’s room and told me she had suffered from a brain bleed, that did not happen from her falling or hitting her head, because this was baby shaken syndrome,” she said.

Justus, now 28, came to visit Layla in the hospital room. He told Hartley he didn’t understand how this could have happened, she said.

“My daughter was hurt and brutally abused by a man who came to see her on her deathbed,” Hartley said.

During the time that Layla was hospitalized before her death, Hartley at one point was removed from Layla’s room by Detroit police officers, who said they were investigating her for child abuse.

After an investigation, Justus was arrested in January.

At a pretrial conference held April 4, Justus entered a no-contest plea, which has the same effect as a guilty plea, to involuntary manslaughter with a habitual offender enhancement for a third offense. A third felony conviction can increase the maximum penalty for a crime by 50%. Justus stated that he took the plea and waived his right to a trial to spare the family from having to relive the incident.

Hartley thinks he was only protecting himself.

“He’s not protecting me from everything I will have to go through, but because he’s in fear of the mountain of evidence that will come to surface, and the fear of child abuse to be added to his charges, and the fear of life without parole, which is the only thing he should be offered in this courtroom,” Hartley said at the sentencing.


Attorneys argue sentencing guidelines
Before Justus was sentenced, the attorneys argued over the scoring of the offense variables.

One sentencing guideline implied Justus had acted with “sadism, torture or brutality.” Geyer said he hadn’t acted in any of those ways.

The first offense variable dealt with aggravated physical abuse. Geyer said that while he wasn’t trying to minimize the child’s injuries, his client never treated her with “sadism, torture, excessive brutality or similar egregious conduct designed to substantially increase the fear and anxiety a victim suffered during the events.”

Geyer said Justus was cleaning the house while Layla was acting fussy. To calm her down, Justus picked her up and played “rocket ship.” But because she wasn’t calming down, he began using an increase of force.

“It wasn’t calming her down as quickly as he wanted, and he became frustrated, and as depicted in the report, the severity of force which he was using increased, and that’s what caused the death of Layla,” Geyer said. “He didn’t get any satisfaction out of that. There was no sadism out of that.”

But Samantha Mackereth, a Wayne State University law student who was practicing under a Macomb County assistant prosecutor, said the idea that Justus lifted the child up and gently rocked her isn’t consistent with her injuries.

“The fact that the defendant was able to inflict these types of injuries with merely his hands, and there was no blunt force trauma, she sustained no fractures, she would have been subjected to extreme force to sustain these injuries,” Mackereth said.

Because he shook Layla in response to his own frustration shows sadism, she said.

Another offense variable implied that Justus had exploited a vulnerable victim, which Geyer said he hadn’t done.

Mackereth argued that because Justus was older and larger, he had an incredible advantage that he exploited over Layla.

Lastly, the attorneys argued whether or not Justus had interfered with justice being served by not coming forward sooner.

Because he didn’t come forward while Layla was in the hospital, the doctors couldn’t give her the appropriate care, Mackereth said.

“Furthermore, he lied to the police at every turn. He didn’t come clean until after he had failed a polygraph and he was being confronted on it,” Mackereth said. “Even though he knew that he had caused the injuries, he was trying to tell police and blame the mother, which led to the mother not being there while her child was laying there suffering and dying.”

Geyer argued Justus didn’t come forward because he wasn’t going to admit guilt at the onset.

“That is his constitutional right to remain silent,” Geyer said.


Justus addresses the court before being sentenced
Before sentencing was imposed, Justus was given an opportunity to speak.

“I can never take back what happened to her,” he said. “I can never apologize enough.”

He would never intentionally hurt Layla, he said.

Justus had known Hartley for a long time, he said. Several months after he was released from prison after being convicted of human trafficking, because he was a family friend, he moved in with her.

“Would you agree you’re, like, the last person who should be babysitting anybody?” Macomb County Circuit Judge James Biernat Jr. asked.

When Justus tried to talk about why he didn’t go to get the child’s grandmother, who lived across the street, instead of shaking the child, Biernat cut him off.

“Spare it with the ‘rocket ship’ stuff,” Biernat said. “You get out of prison, and within a year you’re living at somebody’s house with little children, then babysitting? It’s a disaster written all over it, which of course is what happened.”

At the recommendation of the probation department, Justus was sentenced to between 12 1/2 years and 30 years in prison.

Hartley said she didn’t think it was enough time. When Justus becomes eligible for parole, she plans to go to every hearing, she said.

“When he does go for parole, I do plan to be at every parole (hearing) and, you know, object and continue to fight for my daughter’s justice,” she said.