Does The Goshen News Favor Curtis Hill?
In Indiana you don’t get to vote until you reach the age of 18. In Indiana you don’t get to drink alcohol until you reach the age of 21. In Indiana you don’t get to join the military until you reach the age of 18. In Indiana you can’t get married without parental consent until you reach the age of 18.
On September 12, 2013 the following headline appeared online on the Goshen News website “Elkhart man sentenced to 55 years in prison for death of cohort”. The article details the sentencing of Blake Layman who was found guilty for the murder of Danzele Johnson. The article goes on to state: “Two other men Anthony Perez Sharp Jr. and Levi Sparks will be sentenced this afternoon.”
I have written extensively about this case because I am very concerned with the decision of Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill to use the felony murder law to excessively punish these three teens for the murder of their friend when they did not pull the trigger . . . in fact two of them (Blake and Anthony) were fleeing with Danzele when the shots were fired and Levi was not even in the building. In previous writings I have clearly stated that they are at fault for breaking into a house. I do not believe they are culpable for the murder which happened when the homeowner, who was woken by the break in, grabbed his gun and shot killing Danzele and wounding Blake.
The Goshen News, reporting on the sentences, published their article about Blake Layman entitled “Elkhart man sentenced to 55 years in prison for death of cohort”. In October 2012 when the break and enter happened Layman was 16. The day of his sentencing he was 17. In my opinion the state of Indiana sentenced a 17-year-old boy to 55 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
You would think that local newspapers might find this worth commenting on. After all juvenile criminal justice is big news in the USA with recent Supreme Court decisions beginning to change the way teens are treated for crimes committed under the age of 18. But this interest is not evident in The Goshen News. In fact their article calls Layman a “man” which as mentioned earlier is someone over the age of 18 in the state of Indiana. Not only is Layman called a man, nowhere in this article is his age referred to. The only person whose age is given was Danzele Johnson who was 21 (5 years older than Layman) at the time of the burglary and his death.
This is a significant omission that needs to be addressed. For several hours this article was the top story on the Goshen News website – announcing a highly anticipated sentence to the people of the community and to other interested parties. This case has garnered a lot of local attention. In fact on several occasions there have been protests about the decision of Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill to charge felony murder, especially in the cases of Blake Layman 16, Jose Quiroz 16 (later accepted a plea deal and 45 years in prison) and Levi Sparks 17, all were minors at the time of the crime. On the day that Curtis Hill decided to charge this way it was reported in the Goshen News that: “Three of the suspects are juveniles under Indiana law, but Hill said he can charge juveniles directly with felony murder.” At the time of the charge there was no discussion in the Goshen News about this decision. There was no attempt to talk with experts to frame the debate. No discussion on the effectiveness of charging juveniles as adults. Rather the newspaper decided only to relay that it had happened. This is especially concerning given the life altering consequences of Mr. Hill’s decision. Why did this newspaper decide not to challenge an elected official on this decision? Is it not their job to investigate the motivation and actions of those tasked with public office?
In a previous article on this case I looked into how another local paper The Elkhart Truth failed to cover this story in any depth preferring to document the human drama of the trial and protests, rather than report both sides of the debate about the use of the felony murder rule. This is a unique legal case that brings together issues of juvenile justice, the validity of charges, the use of the felony murder rule and the actions of the prosecution. This case has captured the attention of the local population. This case will continue with appeals but will also be documented by national and international media as an example of the youth justice system in the USA. The record of this case will be studied in years to come and unfortunately the digital records of local papers will show what a poor job they did in their coverage. In the case of The Elkhart Truth I have documented that their coverage was about sensationalism. This is also true for the Goshen News, but their coverage reveals more – the Goshen News has a bias in favour of Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill.
This bias was revealed on August 18, 2013 when the Goshen News published an editorial saying that the use of the felony murder law in this case was appropriate. In their editorial there was no discussion of the fact that three of the four charged were juveniles which is a huge omission. Papers have a right to editorials so I do not fault them this opinion (although I strongly disagree with the opinion). What I do fault them for is that their bias has spilled over into their reporting – this was especially true on September 12.
For this newspaper, to label Blake Layman a man, ignores everything that we know about child development. It ignores the recent Supreme Court decisions which are differentiating the way states can treat adults and juveniles. By calling Blake Layman a man and then failing to reference his age the Goshen News is giving a free pass to Curtis Hill. The paper never demanded a justification from Curtis Hill for this decision. Instead they ignored a major aspect of the case. They are not honestly reflecting the reality of what happened in this case. This is not acceptable journalism.
Elkhart County finds itself run like a one party state. According to the Goshen News on November 8, 2012 Republicans dominated the 2012 election. The article continues “According to current Elkhart County Councilman David Hess, the last Democrat elected to Elkhart County Council was Ben Barnes in the early 1980s.” In the absence of political opposition we need to hope that the local media will try to hold elected officials to account. Is this happening in Elkhart County? I don’t think so, especially when it comes to the Prosecutors Office.
In my opinion the case of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, Anthony Sharp and Jose Quiroz reveals a disturbing undertone in the leadership of Elkhart County. The ruling elite supported by an incompetent local media have shown that there is no room for redemption, no ability for forgiveness and no desire to have an honest, open and detailed debate about a failing justice system. Papers like the Goshen News don’t engage in any investigations into juvenile justice, prison costs or look into how other places run their justice systems. There is an acceptance of the status quo by The Goshen News – because the status quo keeps the elite in power and hides the incompetence of the local media.
This is my forth blog posting on this miscarriage of justice. I have documented the enormous financial cost this conviction is going to have for the Indiana taxpayers. I have documented the massive prison disparity between the USA and other countries and documented how the Canadian system would have handled this case. I know that I have a bias; in fact I wear my bias proudly. I accept that others have opposing biases and would love to debate with them, but there have been no real attempts to articulate in great detail the other side. Instead we have fluffy reporting from the Elkhart Truth and even worse reports, which hides facts, appearing in The Goshen News.
The article entitled “Elkhart man sentenced to 55 years in prison for death of cohort” is a piece of propaganda plain and simple. It is propaganda written to frame a debate and make a local politician look good.
Several hours later the Goshen News did call the convicted “teens” in their next article entitled “Teens in deadly home invasion sentenced”. They had no choice because in this article they were interviewing the families and lawyers of the boys whose central argument is the fact that these boys, who were given such harsh sentences, were juveniles at the time this burglary was committed. An argument completely ignored in the first article. Although important issues were raised in the second article there was no attempt by The Goshen News to interview experts on both sides of this issue to help frame the debate. Another blatant example of incompetent journalism.
Carl Berstein wrote “The lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism. Today ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.” Mr. Berstein’s writing is so true when you look at the state of journalism in Elkhart County.