April 22, 2015
The “Elkhart Four”
On August 22, 2013 three boys from Elkhart, Indiana were found guilty for the death of their 21 year old friend, Danzele Johnson, while one other pleaded guilty back in November the year before. Although none of the boys were armed, and did not actually murder Johnson, they were given 50-55 years. Black Layman, Jose Quiroz and Anthony Sharp were each given 55 years while Levi Sparks was given 50. On October 3, 2012 Layman, Sparks, Quiroz, Sharp and Johnson needed cash for drugs and decided to find an empty house to break into. They found a house, which seemed to be empty, and broke into the house through the back door (Layman, Sharp, Quiroz and Johnson) while Sparks stayed across the street as a “look out.” The homeowner, Rodney Scott, was upstairs taking a nap and heard the noise. He quickly ran downstairs with his handgun and fired the gun being scared for his life. Scott ended up killing Johnson and wounding Layman.
Under Indiana’s felony murder statute, a person can be charged with murder if someone is killed while he or she is committing or attempting to commit another crime: arson, burglary, robbery, carjacking, human trafficking, sexual trafficking, or sex and drug crimes. Felony murder carries the same penalty as murder, but unlike a murder charge, in which intent to kill must be proven, a person can be convicted of felony murder even if the death is accidental or unintended.
This case is specifically an injustice for many reasons. It is unlike other felony murder cases because they typically involve armed defendants who can reasonably foresee that someone could get killed in their actions. It is also unlike other felony murder charges because they were attempting to commit a non-violent burglary of what they believed to be an unoccupied residence. The last reason is because they were all juveniles.
In October of 2013 Layman, Sharp and Sparks filed notices of appeal in the Indiana Court of Appeals, asking for the overturn of their conviction. On September 12, 2014 the Court of Appeals upheld their convictions, but ruled their sentences were inappropriate and suspended 10 years of Layman and Sharps sentences to probation and suspended 5 years of Sparks to probation. On October 14, 2014 Layman, Sharp and Sparks asked for their cases to be transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court and as of February 26, 2015 the Supreme Court held oral arguments, however justices have yet to decide whether or not to rule on the case.
There are many actions that citizens and politicians can take that will eradicate felony murder charges like this one in the future. Michigan, Hawaii and Kentucky have already abolished felony murder, but most still have some sort of variation of it on the books. In some states, felony murder is included in the definition of first degree murder. In others, it’s a less serious offense, typically second degree murder. A lot of state representatives around the country believe that it should be abolished but do not take any action to do so in their state because of lack of constituent support.