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Ind. Supreme Court overturns 'Elkhart Four' case

Posted at 9:04 PM, Sep 18, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the felony murder convictions Friday of three Elkhart teens sentenced for the 2012 death of a friend shot while committing a burglary.

The teens – Blake Layman, 18, Levi Sparks, 17, Jose Quiroz, 16, and Anthony Sharp, 18 – came to be known as the "Elkhart Four." Their case has become a focal point for the argument over felony murder statutes, particularly as they are applied to juvenile defenders.

The case arose from a burglary in 2012, during the course of which the teens' friend and co-conspirator, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, was shot and killed by a homeowner.

All four teens were charged with felony murder for Johnson's death. Quiroz pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 55 years with 10 suspended as probation. Layman and Sharp were sentenced to 55 years in prison. Sparks received 50 years in prison.

Attorneys for three of the teens – Layman, Sharp and Sparks – argued on appeal the felony murder statute was incorrectly applied because the Johnson's death wasn't a foreseeable result of their actions.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed.

"The 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,'" the court wrote in its opinion. "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."

The court did find there was sufficient evidence to convict Layman, Sparks and Sharp on burglary. They were ordered to be resentenced for burglary as a class "B" felony, which carries a potentially sentence of six to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, with an advisory sentence of 10 years.