Felony Murder Defenses & The Elkhart Four

February 28, 2014

handcuffs criminal lawLast week, amicus curiae began to arrive in the appeal of Layman, Blake & Sparks, Levi v. State Of Indiana (docket number 20-A-04-1310-CR-00518).  In October 2012, a group of five young men burglarized a home in Elkhart, IN. The young men, Blake Layman, Joe Quiroz, Levi Sparks, Anthony Sharp, and Danzele Johnson, were unarmed and believed the home was unoccupied. Unfortunately, the owner was actually napping in an upstairs room. Hearing noises, he grabbed his phone and gun and proceeded downstairs. Upon encountering the strangers in his home, the owner discharged his firearm striking Blake Layman in the leg and fatally shooting Danzele Johnson in the chest.

Under the Indiana felony murder statute (IN ST 35-42-1-1), three of the remaining teen burglars were convicted and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment. The fourth, Jose Quiroz pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 45 years.

The draconian sentencing precipitated debate regarding application of felony murder laws. The debate is bipartite: (1) whether felony murder should apply to persons that did not actually commit murder, and (2) whether felony murder should apply to teens. As stated above, the homeowner was the shooter responsible for the death of Danzele Johnson. No one besides the homeowner possessed a weapon. Additionally, results of brain science studies on adolescents show they are less able to perceive and assess risk, which some argue makes the teens guilty of the lesser crime of burglary and not felony murder. Notwithstanding, Prosecutor Curtis Hill stands by his decision, proclaiming that “we believed it was appropriate that when someone commits a felony, and a person dies as a result, Indiana law is very clear.

States such as Arkansas (11.41.115), Maine (17-A § 202), New Jersey (2C:11-3), North Dakota (12.1-16-01), among several others carved out a defense to felony murder where the defendant was not the killer, was unarmed and had no reason to believe an accomplice was armed or planned to commit a potentially fatal act. To see a full list of relevant statutes, try the following search:

adv: SD(“affirmative defense” /50 commit! /5 act and murder homicid!)

Much to the detriment of the convicted, no such exception exists in the state of Indiana.

A popular legal axiom is: If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. However, an equally prevalent axiom exists: Let the punishment fit the crime. While the actions of the Elkhart Four cannot be condoned, given the ages of those involved and the absence of a weapon during the burglary, the sentences handed down appear extremely harsh.