Three members of the “Elkhart 4” convicted of murder in a controversial, highly publicized case in northern Indiana had their murder convictions vacated Friday by the Indiana Supreme Court. Justices remanded convictions for sentencing instead on burglary convictions.
Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony P. Sharp Jr. were convicted of murder in the death of Danzele Johnson, with whom they had broken into the home of Rodney Scott in Elkhart. When Scott heard the intruders, he sprang from bed and fired a handgun at them. Johnson was fatally wounded.
Layman, Sparks, Sharp and a fourth suspect, Jose Quiroz, were convicted of felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary. Quiroz, who was 16 at the time of the burglary, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years executed in the Department of Correction.
Layman was 16 at the time of the crime, Sparks was 17 and Sharp was 18. Layman and Sharp were each sentenced to 55 years in prison and Sparks was sentenced to 50 years.
“The evidence is clear that Layman, Sparks, and three co-perpetrators participated in a home invasion. Intending to commit theft — a felony — four of the perpetrators broke down the homeowner’s back door and entered the house while Sparks served as a lookout. In consequence, one of the co-perpetrators was fatally wounded. There is no question that the evidence is sufficient to sustain a burglary conviction,” Justice Robert Rucker wrote for the court in the consolidated appeal Blake Layman & Levi Sparks v. State of Indiana, 20S04-1509-CR-548.
“(T)he record here shows that when the group broke and entered the residence of the homeowner intending to commit a theft – a burglary – not only were they unarmed, but also neither the Appellants nor their cohorts engaged in any ‘dangerously violent and threatening conduct,’” Rucker wrote. “There was simply nothing about the Appellants’ conduct or the conduct of their cohorts that was ‘clearly the mediate or immediate cause’ of their friend’s death.
“Thus, while the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for the underlying burglary, it is not sufficient to sustain a conviction for felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary,” the court ruled. “We thus remand this cause with instructions to enter verdicts of guilty to burglary as a Class B felony and resentence the Appellants accordingly.”
The court applied its holdings in Layman in Anthony P. Sharp, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 20S04-1509-CR-549. Because the court found Sharp identically situated to the Layman and Sparks, justices likewise vacated his murder conviction and remanded for sentencing on conviction of burglary as a Class B felony.