GOSHEN — In three emotional hearings — each lasting almost an hour — attorneys continued a conversation they started during trial of whether three teenagers involved in a burglary last year deserved to be convicted of felony murder.
Blake Layman, 17; Levi Sparks, 18; and Anthony Sharp, 19, appeared for their sentencing hearings Thursday morning, Sept. 12.
Layman and Sharp received a sentence of 55 years in prison. Sparks received a 50-year sentence.
The three were found guilty Aug. 22 of felony murder following a four-day joint trial.
They were accused of being responsible for the death of Danzele Johnson, 21, who died during an attempted burglary at 1919 Frances Ave. on Oct. 3, 2012.
The homeowner, Rodney Scott, was at his house when Layman, Sparks, Sharp, Johnson and Jose Quiroz broke into the house. He opened fire against the group when he heard movement on the first floor of his house, shooting and killing Johnson.
Quiroz was also charged with felony murder, and he pleaded guilty in November 2012.
He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
During the trial the teens’ attorneys argued their clients had attempted to commit burglary, — a felony that is not considered a violent crime — in what they thought was a vacant house.
Those same arguments were brought up during the sentencing hearings Thursday.
“Felony murder is a hard concept for these young men to understand” said Mark Doty, Layman’s attorney. “It is not an easy concept for people to wrap their head around when the perpetrators didn’t pull the trigger.”
Doty told the court a little about his client. Layman grew up in a poor family supported solely by his mother and without a male role model.
Layman helped his mother take care of his younger sister, who has been battling cancer most of her life.
“This works an enormous hardship on his family,” Doty said.
It was Layman’s hearing that had the most people in the audience, and was also the most emotional of all three sentencing hearings. Families of the three teenagers, as well as the families of defendants from other cases filled the courtroom during Layman’s sentencing hearing.
At one point chief prosecuting attorney Vicki Becker was interrupted by some of the audience members who started yelling while she addressed the court.
Judge Terry Shewmaker told the audience to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Jeff Majerek, Sharp’s attorney, said it’s important to focus on how his client will get rehabilitated in a positive way.
“Fifty-five or 60 years are not going to change what Mr. Scott will be going through the rest of his life,” he said.
Doty and Majerek also told the court how the incident on Oct. 3, 2012, will forever mark their clients.
“As he realized his friend, Danzele Johnson had been killed, as they attempted to hide in a closet while Danzele took the last few breaths of his life — that image this young man will never ever forget,” Doty said.
Sharp spoke to the court, saying he and Johnson were very close friends, and that Johnson’s death affected him greatly.
“He was like a brother to me and to a lot of us,” he said. “We all loved him very much.”
Sharp also apologized to the court, to his family, to Johnson’s family and to Scott.
Vincent Campiti, Sparks’ attorney, said his client would not accept responsibility to anything related to the felony murder charge.
“I think there was ample evidence that (Sparks) may not have been a part of this,” he said. “The evidence points nothing in his direction.”
Becker said the tragic results of the burglary could have been avoided if the teens had decided against breaking into Scott’s house. She repeated the concept of accessory liability throughout the three sentencing hearings — the importance of understanding that all five people in the group planned to burglarize Scott’s house.
“Danzele is dead because of all of them,” she said during Sparks’ hearing.
She also mentioned the importance of not losing focus on the victims.
“Every day (Scott) has nightmares of killing Danzele,” she said. “He has to live the rest of his life knowing that because of what he did this young man is dead.”
The three teens plan to file an appeal. Layman said his family is in the process of hiring another attorney. Sparks will retain Campiti as his attorney, while Sharp will have an attorney appointed from the public defender’s office.
During Layman’s hearing, Shewmaker read part of a letter he received from one Layman’s family members. The fragment he read was in a way the “voice of reason,” in the case, he said.
“Blake needed us to be there. As a family we should have been there to help him and we failed at this.”