The Elkhart Four

On Friday, September 18, 2015, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a much awaited opinion in the case that became known as the Elkhart Four, Layman, et al. v. State of Indiana, 20S04-1509-CR-548.  You can read the opinion here.  The case received nationwide media attention (see ABC’s article and interviews here).

On October 3, 2015, a group of five Elkhart, Indiana teenagers attempted to rob a house.  During the botched robbery one of the teenagers was shot and killed by the homeowner.  The other teenagers were charged with felony-murder.  One defendant pleaded guilty to felony-murder and three went to trial and were convicted of felony-murder.  The defendants were sentenced from 50 to 55 years in prison.

Two of the defendants who went to trial appealed.  Eventually, the case wound its way to the Indiana Supreme Court.  The Defendants raised various legal arguments on appeal, but the main legal question was whether the defendants could be convicted of felony-murder where the defendants nor any of their cohorts were the person who killed the individual.  Here are the relevant facts from the Indiana Supreme Court opinion:

On the morning of October 3, 2012 sixteen-year-old Blake Layman and seventeen-year old Levi Sparks were present at the home of sixteen-year-old Jose Quiroz. At some point, the trio discussed committing burglary in the neighborhood. They decided to search for a house where the residents were away because they were aware that the presence of a homeowner during a burglary could result in injuries and more severe legal consequences. Sparks knocked on the door of the first house targeted. When the juveniles heard dogs barking they ran away. Someone was home at the second house they targeted.

Believing no one was home at the time, the juveniles finally settled on the house across the street from where Quiroz lived, which belonged to Rodney Scott. They then contacted their friends, eighteen-year-old Anthony P. Sharp, Jr., and twenty-one-year-old Danzele Johnson, to “help to get into the house.” Unbeknownst to them, however, Scott was actually asleep in an upstairs bedroom. Unarmed, the group proceeded to break into Scott’s house. While Sparks stayed at Quiroz’s house serving as a lookout, Layman, Johnson, Sharp, and Quiroz entered Scott’s home by kicking in the rear door to the kitchen. Scott was awakened when he heard a “boom, and [his] whole house just shook.” After hearing a second loud boom, Scott immediately grabbed his handgun and cell phone and ran loudly downstairs to scare away any intruders. When Scott reached the bottom of the stairs he saw Sharp run out the back door. He then saw three of the intruders standing near a downstairs bedroom door. Scott began firing his weapon and Layman, Johnson, and Quiroz ran into the bedroom closet. Scott then held the young men at bay in the closet and called 911. While Scott was on the phone the closet door opened and Scott saw Johnson fall to the floor. Quiroz, whom Scott recognized as a neighbor, told Scott that Johnson had been shot. Shortly thereafter Layman yelled that he also had been shot.

When the police arrived, Quiroz attempted to flee. He ran out of the closet and crashed through a glass window. One of the officers pursued Quiroz on foot and he was soon after taken into custody. In the meantime other officers entered the house and arrested Layman who was treated for a gunshot wound to his leg. Johnson’s body was found on the bedroom floor just outside the closet. He died at the scene from a gunshot wound. Scott’s wallet and watch, which were previously located on the kitchen counter, were retrieved from the closet in which Layman, Johnson, and Quiroz had been hiding.

Layman, et al., 20S04-1509-CR-548, *2-3.

The felony-murder statute, Ind. Code 35-42-1-1(2) provides in relevant part, ““A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit . . . burglary . . . commits murder, a felony.”  The Court stated,

The evidence is clear that Layman, Sparks, and three co-perpetrators participated in a home invasion. Intending to commit theft—a felony—four of the perpetrators broke down the homeowner’s back door and entered the house while Sparks served as a lookout. In consequence, one of the co-perpetrators was fatally wounded. There is no question that the evidence is sufficient to sustain a burglary conviction.

Layman, et al., 20S04-1509-CR-548, *9.

The Supreme Court then analyzed prior cases interpreting the felony-murder statute and made the following finding:

Aside from the fact that in each case a co-perpetrator was fatally injured by someone other than the defendant, the common thread uniting [the] Palmer, Jenkins, and Forney [cases] was that an armed defendant engaged in violent and threatening conduct, either as a principle or an accessory, that resulted in the “mediate or immediate cause” of a co-perpetrator’s death. By contrast 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.” 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. Thus, while the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for the underlying burglary, it is not sufficient to sustain a conviction for felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary. Accordingly, we reverse Layman’s and Sparks’ convictions for felony murder.

Layman, et al., 20S04-1509-CR-548, *11.

Thus, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed two of the defendants’ felony-murder convictions, but remanded their cases back to the trial court to be sentenced on the B felony burglary charges.  B felony charges carry a potential sentence from 6 – 20 years in prison.

If you have questions about a criminal matter contact NLKJ criminal defense attorneys Nick OtisDavid JonesMartin Kus, or Bill Kaminski.