Felony murder convictions upheld in Elkhart home invasion, but sentences amended

September 12, 2014

The appeals of three teens involved in a daytime home invasion that turned fatal gave the Court of Appeals a chance to examine the felony murder statute and its application for juveniles.

Two panels on the Court of Appeals handed down decisions Friday affirming the felony murder convictions of then-16-year-old Blake Layman, then-17-year-old Levi Sparks and then-18-year-old Anthony Sharp Jr. In October 2012, Layman, Sparks and 16-year-old Jose Quiroz decided to commit a burglary. They chose the home of Rodney Scott, which they believed was unoccupied.

The three called Sharp and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson to help them. Sparks served as a lookout as the four others kicked in the door of Scott’s home. Scott was upstairs and came running downstairs with his gun. He saw Sharp run out of the home and the other three remained in a bedroom. Scott fired several shots at the floor in an attempt to scare the burglars. He ended up striking Layman and Johnson, and Johnson later died from his injuries.

Johnson’s death led the state to charge the four teens with felony murder. Quiroz pleaded guilty and received 50 years in prison with 10 years suspended to probation. The other three were tried together and convicted; Layman and Sharp received 55 years; Sparks received 50 years; no part of the sentences were suspended to probation.

The panel hearing Sharp’s appeal unanimously affirmed his conviction in Anthony P. Sharp, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 20A04-1310-CR-501. The panel hearing Layman’s and Sparks’ combined appeal also affirmed, but was split 2-1. Both panels relied on Palmer v. State, 704 N.E.2d 124, 126 (Ind. 1999), in which the Indiana Supreme Court held that the statutory language “kills another human being while committing” does not restrict the felony murder provision only to instances in which the felon is the killer. It may also apply equally when, in committing any of the designated felonies, the felon contributes to the death of any person.

The defendants had argued that they were unarmed and no one who broke into the home had shot Johnson, so they could not be held responsible.

Judge Melissa May, in a concurring opinion in Blake Layman v. State of Indiana; Levi Sparks v. State of Indiana, 20A04-1310-CR-518, took issue with Layman’s and Sparks’ automatic waiver into adult court, which subjected them to the reasonable foreseeability standard that their actions were forseeably dangerous to human life.  

“Subjecting a juvenile who did not kill or intend to kill anyone to a murder prosecution in adult court based solely on the premise it was ‘foreseeable’ to the juvenile that someone might be killed is problematic because juveniles do not ‘foresee’ like adults do,” she wrote.

She urged that Indiana courts adopt the “agency approach”: for a defendant to be held guilty of murder, it is necessary that the act of killing be that of the defendant, and for the act to be his, it is necessary that it be committed by him or by someone acting in concert with him.

Judge James Kirsch dissented in Layman, believing Palmer is not applicable in this case because the circumstances are different and so the felony murder statute was not properly applied.

Both panels ordered the three teens’ sentences reduced, pointing to their ages and that Quiroz, who pleaded guilty, received part of his sentence reduced to probation. In Layman, the judges ordered 10 years of Layman’s sentence suspended to probation and five years of Sparks’ sentence suspended to probation. In Sharp, the judges ordered the lower court to suspend 10 years Sharp’s sentence to probation.


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