ELKHART — A jury trial determined three teenagers were responsible for their friend’s death when they decided to break into a house and were confronted by the homeowner.
Blake Layman, 17; Levi Sparks, 18; and Anthony Sharp, 19, were found guilty of felony murder just minutes before midnight. The three teens face a sentence of up to 65 years in prison.
Judge Terry Shewmaker scheduled a sentencing hearing for the teens Sept. 12.
On Oct. 3, 2012, a group of five people attempted to burglarize a residence at 1919 Frances Ave. The homeowner shot and killed 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, one of the members of the group.
Jose Quiroz, 17, was also charged with felony murder, but he pleaded guilty in November 2012. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Family members and friends of the teens sobbed and expressed their disapproval in an emotional ending to the four-day trial.
Family friend Jennifer Szabo said after the verdict that the homeowner didn’t need to fire numerous shots.
“I wish there would have been a different outcome because they did not commit a murder, they did not pull that trigger,” Szabo told WNDU-TV.
The joint trial for Layman, Sparks and Sharp started Monday, Aug. 19, with jury selection, a task that took attorneys about 12 hours to complete.
The second day of trial started with opening arguments by the prosecuting and defense attorneys. Vicki Becker, chief deputy prosecutor, walked the jury through the incident, giving for the first time detailed information about the deadly break-in at 1919 Frances Ave.
The defense attorneys argued from the beginning that their clients never meant to harm anyone when they decided to break into a house they thought was unoccupied. They also brought the jury’s attention to the decisions the homeowner made when he heard noises in his house.
Later that day testimony began. The first few witnesses called to the stand were Elkhart Police officers who were initially dispatched to the scene and those who later investigated the case.
Another witness called to testify Tuesday was Rebecca McKnight, Quiroz’s mother. Reluctantly, McKnight told the jury Sparks had been staying in her house a few days prior to Oct. 3.
She gave other pieces of information, but when she was asked about what facts she discussed with her son the day of the incident she could not remember.
“Do you not remember or do you not want to say?” asked Becker during McKnight’s testimony.
On Wednesday, testimony continued, but most of the day was used on Quiroz’s testimony.
Quiroz was brought from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility to testify, but the teen was treated as a hostile witness when he refused to answer Becker’s questions.
In response to Quiroz’s hostility, Becker submitted Quiroz’s plea agreement and the transcript of his plea hearing, in which he incriminated Layman, Sparks and Sharp.
On Thursday, the last day of the trial, homeowner Rodney Scott was called to testify. During his testimony, Scott retold the incidents from his perspective.
Scott told the court he felt threatened and in fear when he heard a loud “boom,” a noise that shook his house, so he grabbed his gun.
When he saw two young men at the doorway of a bedroom of his house and on the other side another person running through the kitchen and out the back door, Scott started firing.
Scott called 911 when he felt he was under control of the situation. Realizing he had shot someone, Scott asked for an ambulance.
When police arrived, they arrested Scott and took him to the police department for interrogation.
Scott never spent a night at 1919 Frances Ave. again. He spent the night at a friend’s house and then he moved out of the house.
Scott told the jury he didn’t know how he ended up hitting two people, let alone killing one.
“I feel horrible. I don’t sleep very well at all. It’s something that still bothers me.”
After four hours spent by attorneys giving their closing arguments and six hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict.
Just a few minutes before midnight, the judge read the jury’s verdict, finding Layman, Sparks and Sharp guilty of felony murder and entering the judgement of conviction.