ELKHART — When five people — four of them teenagers and one in his early 20s — planned to break into 1919 Frances Ave. on Oct. 3, 2012, they didn’t know their lives would turn round 180 degrees within minutes. They never sought to hurt anyone. They made a stupid choice.
That’s what the attorneys for Blake Layman, 17; Levi Sparks, 18; and Anthony Sharp, 19; told the court and the jury in their final arguments in August.
The application of the felony murder charge in this case “is a technicality,” said Jeff Majerek, Sharp’s attorney, during his client’s sentencing hearing Sept. 12.
The state without any hesitation defended and backed its choice.
“This is about making decisions and accepting responsibility,” said Vicki Becker, chief deputy prosecutor and the prosecuting attorney in the joint trial.
Curtis Hill, Elkhart County prosecutor, explained the rationale behind the department’s use of the felony murder statute in this case.
“It is highly applicable under these circumstances, that a felony was being conducted and as a result of that felony someone died.”
Yet some in the community remained divided on whether the law was applied appropriately and whether the group received a fair sentence.
Jason Moreno, a community leader who lives in the neighborhood where the break-in happened, questioned what good it would do to lock up four teenagers for decades.
“Clearly, these kids have not been and will not be much of any sort of deterrent to others moving forward,” he wrote in a letter to the court. “What’s worse than the financial cost is the cost we pay when these children lose their opportunity to live decent and full lives because of the actions of the courts.”
It is not possible to know what percentage of the community favored or opposed the decisions taken by the prosecutor’s office in filing felony murder charges against the teens. But Hill said he believed a great number of people in the community feel strongly that the appropriate consequences for bad behavior must be put in action.
“Certainly, the people who were impacted, the family members, have concerns and I completely appreciate that,” he said. “But the greater reality is that the law has been applied in an appropriate manner, in a fair manner. The fact that these particular individuals were of younger years occurs, and the court takes that into consideration.”
The case will remain in the courts system, as families of the defendants have expressed their intentions to appeal the conviction and sentence.
Joel Schumm, clinical professor of law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, explained that there are a few wrinkles in the case, which could lead to interesting arguments when it reaches the court of appeals or Indiana Supreme Court.
First, there’s the fact that there were multiple defendants.
Then, that it’s one of the defendants, not the victim, who died during the commission of a crime, and that it was the homeowner — the victim — who fired the shots.
Though not unheard of, it is in some respects an unusual case. Schumm pointed out Palmer v. State, an Indiana Supreme Court case that Circuit Court Judge Terry Shewmaker mentioned in his sentencing hearing, which aided him in making his decision on the sentencing.
In Palmer v. State Jesse Palmer attempted to kidnap an officer while helping another man, Robert Williams, escape. During the ordeal, officers shot and killed Williams, and Palmer was charged and later convicted of felony murder.
The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The statute did not restrict the felony murder provision only to the instance in which the felon is the killer.
The court also quoted the Indiana Court of Appeals, which had said a person who commits or attempts to commit an offense listed in the felony murder statute is criminally responsible for a homicide.
The court agreed it has to be foreseeable by the people committing the felony that there’s danger of death as a result, Schumm said.
In Layman, Sparks and Sharp’s case, there was a chance that the owner of the house would be armed.
“And in Indiana it’s pretty clear by statute that homeowners are allowed to defend themselves against unlawful entry into their house by shooting at the people that break in.”
Another wrinkle in the case was that some of the defendants were juveniles at the time of the break-in.
Over the last several years there has been discussion about how juveniles assess situations differently from adults, Schumm said.
“I assume the argument could be made in appeal that whether this is foreseeable or not should be different because a juvenile’s involved,” he said.
“Maybe an adult would or should foresee that but a juvenile, if they talked about breaking into someone’s house to take something, it’s probably not as foreseeable to them that someone might end up getting shot as a result.”
THE CONCEPT OF FELONY MURDER
The Indiana felony murder rule, found under Indiana Code 35-42-1-1 (2), says it is murder when a person kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit arson, burglary, child molesting, consumer product tampering, criminal deviate conduct, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, promotion of human trafficking, sexual trafficking of a minor or carjacking.
The statute came to be in 1976, but the concept had been mentioned in decades prior, pointed out Shewmaker during the sentencing hearings for Layman, Sparks and Sharp.
It is a different rule under the most generally known statute of murder, in which the state must prove that the defendant knowingly or intentionally killed another person.
“In this case felony murder is the only way you can get a conviction of murder, which is the most serious crime in Indiana,” Schumm said. “It ranges much higher than any other crime, like burglary.”
The conviction of burglary was presented to the jury as an option on the fourth day of the trial. In the end, the jury found the three teens guilty of murder.
Ultimately it is the legislature that defines crimes.
“All the crimes in Indiana are statutory. Judges don’t make up crimes,” Schumm said.
He said that if people question whether only violent felonies should be included in the statute, they can address it with lawmakers.
“That’s certainly a decision the legislature can make, and the legislature can also decide that felony murder shouldn’t apply to juveniles, but that’s not a decision that has been made yet.”