Elkhart teens, amici seek appeal of murder convictions

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The felony murder convictions of two Elkhart County teens that splintered the Court of Appeals should be heard by the Indiana Supreme Court, the defendants and amicus filers say.

Blake Layman and Levi Sparks respectively were 16 years old and 17 years old when they were among a group of five young men who planned and executed a home invasion in Elkhart in which one of them, Danzele Johnson, 21, was shot by the homeowner and later died.

Layman and Anthony Sharp Jr., who was 18 at the time of the crime, were convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Sparks was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in prison. No parts of the sentences were suspended. Sharp’s sentence was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

On appeal, defendants argued that they couldn’t be held responsible because they weren’t armed and none of them shot Johnson. In Blake Layman v. State of Indiana; Levi Sparks v. State of Indiana, 20A04-1310-CR-518, a divided appeals panel affirmed the convictions but remanded with instructions to suspend 10 years of Layman’s sentence and five years of Sparks’ sentence to probation.

Judge James Kirsch dissented from the majority affirmation of the convictions, finding the felony murder statute in these cases was not properly applied. Judge Melissa May concurred but wrote separately that Layman’s and Sparks’ automatic waiver to adult court was problematic because as juveniles, the foreseeability of the killing wasn’t as clear.
Last week Layman and Sparks asked the Indiana Supreme Court to grant transfer in their appeal. The Indiana Public Defender Council and juvenile advocates led by the Juvenile Law Center have filed amicus briefs on behalf of Layman and Sparks.

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