Elkhart teens try to convince justices to revisit felony murder statute

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An Indiana statute and a 16-year-old Indiana Supreme Court decision interpreting that statute are under review as three teenagers serving 45-year sentences asked the justices to overturn their convictions for felony murder.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard extended oral arguments Feb. 26 on a petition to accept transfer in two cases resulting from the same bungled burglary, Layman v. State, 17 N.E.3d 957 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014) and Sharp v. State, 16 N.E.3d 470 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014).

Three Elkhart teenagers in the cases – Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony P. Sharp, Jr. – participated in a burglary with two other accomplices. While inside the house they thought was unoccupied, the homeowner confronted the group then shot and killed Danzel Johnson, one of the accomplices.  

The teens were charged and ultimately convicted of felony murder. Under the statute, Indiana Code 35-42-1-1, an individual can be tried for murder if he or she commits a felony during which someone dies.

Before the Indiana Court of Appeals in 2014, the defense argued felony murder did not apply in the Elkhart case. It also contended the Indiana Supreme Court’s split decision in Palmer v. State, 704 N.E.2d 124, 126 (Ind. 1999), expanded the statute beyond what the Legislature had intended.  

Defense attorney Cara Wieneke reiterated those arguments before the justices this morning in a 40-minute hearing. She asserted that a plain reading of the statute limits the application of the law to an individual who actually kills or is an accomplice to someone who kills during the commission of a felony. In the Elkhart case, the teens do not meet the criteria of the statute because they did not shoot Johnson.

When Wieneke acknowledged the Indiana General Assembly had not done much since the Palmer decision to alter the statute, Justice Brent Dickson, who wrote the majority opinion in Palmer, interjected that the Legislature had not done anything.

Wieneke concurred but then explained there were many reasons why the Statehouse did not attempt to address the court’s interpretation. In particular, the Legislature tends to act when a court decision impacts a lot of people, she said. The Palmer opinion did not create many ripples and, therefore, did not draw the attention of the legislative branch.

Dickson countered that maybe the General Assembly did not act because it agreed with the court’s interpretation.

During the state’s arguments, Dickson pressed Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ian McLean about the statute’s wording. The justice asked how the law’s language could be construed to indicate anyone other than the individual who pulls the trigger or wields the weapon.

McLean argued that the person who commits the act has caused the death. If the act is the target felony and harm is foreseeable, then the person committing the felony is the person who kills, he said.

Dickson questioned if that interpretation was a slight of hand since the statute says a person who kills and does not say a person who commits a targeted act.

McLean answered that the Legislature was not specific but chose to focus on the defendant as the direct causal agent of the death. Law has been clear since the founding of America, he said, that someone can kill by causing death and does not have to pull a trigger.

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to grant transfer and, if it does accept transfer, it will issue an opinion.


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