INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Supreme Court is weighing whether to take up the case of three Elkhart youths seeking to have their murder convictions overturned in the death of an accomplice fatally shot by a homeowner after the four broke into a house.
The justices heard arguments Thursday in the case of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp, who want the court to take up the combined appeal of their 2013 murder convictions.
The young men were convicted in the fatal October 2012 shooting of 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, who took part in the northern Indiana break-in and was shot to death by an Elkhart man who awoke from a nap and discovered their intrusion into his home.
Layman, Sparks and Sharp — who were ages 16, 17 and 18 at the time of the break-in — were convicted of murder under a state law that allows murder charges if someone is killed during the commission of another felony offense.
Cara Wieneke, an attorney for the trio, told Indiana’s justices Thursday the state’s law was incorrectly applied in their case in part because the youths were unarmed, believed the home was unoccupied and could not have foreseen that one of them would be fatally shot.
Wieneke also said a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling which found Indiana’s felony murder law isn’t restricted solely to cases where the felon is the killer should be overturned. That ruling found the law can also apply to cases where the felon contributes to another person’s death.
But Wieneke said the law’s language clearly refers back to the person committing the felony, and “not the victim” of the original crime.
“Nowhere in the language of the statute does it allow for the doctrine to apply to a nonparticipant in the felony who actually does the killing,” she told the justices, referring to the homeowner’s actions.
Deputy Attorney General Ian McLean told the court the language of the state’s felony murder law is “completely clear” and urged the justices not to accept the case.
But Justice Brent Dickson questioned McLean’s argument, saying the law is only clear when it is read in conjunction with the 1999 ruling.
The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the trio’s convictions last year but found that their sentences of between 50 and 55 years were too harsh and recommended their sentences be reduced to 45 years.
Another accomplice in the break-in, Jose Quiroz, cannot appeal his conviction or sentence because he pleaded guilty to felony murder. Quiroz, who was 16 at the time of the crime, was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Layman’s mother, Angie Johnson, attended Thursday’s hearing and said afterward Wieneke made a persuasive argument that Indiana’s felony murder law was incorrectly applied in the case. She said her son and the others did indeed commit a crime but should be punished only for the break-in.
“Felony murder is when another human being kills another human being. These boys didn’t kill anybody,” she said.