One Year On — Three Questions Curtis Hill Does Not Want Us Asking

It has been exactly one year since the case of The Elkhart 4 began.  On October 3, 2012 Blake Layman (age 16) Jose Quiroz (age 16), Anthony Sharp (age 18) and Danzele Johnson (age 21) decided to break into a house in the middle of the afternoon.  They knocked on doors and found a house where no one answered.  Believing the house to be empty the four boys broke in.  Levi Sparks (age 17) who was hanging out with the other boys remained across the street on a porch.  In the house a man was sleeping.  He heard the noise of the break in grabbed his gun and fired several shots killing Danzele Johnson and wounding Blake Layman.  Elkhart County Prosecutor charged and convicted Layman, Quiroz, Sharp and Sparks with the murder of Danzele Johnson.  The boys are now serving sentences of 45 – 55 years in Indian State Prisons.  We thought we would devote some time today to debating three questions, we think Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill does not want us discussing.  If you have any thoughts on these questions we want to hear from you.  Please fill out the form at the bottom of this post.  Here are the three questions and our thoughts on them . . .

 1.  Is Curtis Hill trying to use the Elkhart 4 to expand the felony murder rule?

The four teens and young adults were charged as adults using the Indiana Felony Murder rule 35-42-1-1 (2) which states:

 A person who (2) 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 . . . commits murder, a felony.

This law is usually applied in the following way.  If two burglars go into a bank to rob it and end up shooting and killing a guard they are both guilty of murder.  In the case of The Elkhart 4 is different.  None of The Elkhart 4 had gun (source WSBT 22), and the Elkhart 4 did not shoot the fatal shots.  In a recent interview with WSBT Ryan Dvorak a member of the Indiana House of Representatives stated, “If you actually read the statute, the language of the statute probably would not apply to the kids in this case” (Sept. 24).  This is because the statue states “a person who kills.”  In the case of The Elkhart 4 Blake Layman, Jose Quiroz and Anthony Sharp did not kill, the homeowner did.  Levi Sparks was not even in the house.

Anticipating this pushback trial court judge Terry Shewmaker referenced the case of Jesse Palmer who was found guilty of felony murder after a correctional officer shot and killed Palmers accomplice in a hostage/kidnapping situation.  Mr. Palmers partner was killed after Mr. Palmer held a gun to head of a correctional officer, fired the gun wounding the correctional office, and threatened to kill the correctional officer.  In the Supreme Court ruling the court upheld the felony murder conviction.  We have documented this case in our article Is Curtis Hill Using the Case of The Elkhart 4 To Expand the Felony Murder Rule in Indiana?  The Palmer situation is very different from The Elkhart 4 because Mr. Palmer escalated the situation through his actions towards the corrections officer.  We do not see the same escalation in the case of The Elkhart 4.  In fact they were trying to escape when they were shot.

We believe that if these convictions stand after appeal Mr. Hill will have successfully expanded the definition of felony murder in the state of Indiana.  As Mr. Dvorak says this is not how the statute actually reads.  If the court allows this case to stand the court at the urging of Curtis Hill will further change the definition of the law without going through the legislature.

People should be concerned about allowing Country Prosecutors to expand this law.  This gives more power to the government and risks further injustices.  Take as an example the case of Ryan Holle who is serving life without parole for felony murder in Florida.  Ryan, who was 20 years old at the time of the crime, was asleep when the murder was committed.  Ryan’s crime?  He lent his car to his roommate (who had borrowed the car often).  The roommate and some other people drove to a house to commit a robbery, which ended up killing an innocent person.  The prosecutor said “no car, no crime”.  Is this they type of power we want Curtis Hill to have?  If this case stands in the Indian court system Curtis Hill will have consolidated this type of power.  If you don’t think a case like Ryan Holle could happen in Indiana remember this . . . it did in the case of The Elkhart 4 . . . .   Mr. Hill charged Levi Sparks with felony murder and he is serving 50 years.  What did he do?  He was standing on a porch across the street when when the homeowner shot and killed his friend and wounded his co-accused.

2.  What does the case of The Elkhart 4 tell us about Curtis Hill’s views about Juvenile Justice?

This case tells us that Prosecutor Curtis Hill and others with political power in Elkhart have very little understanding of recent research and developments into human brain development, or even worse, they just don’t care.  Recent court decisions (US Supreme Court) have forced states to re-evaluate how teens are sentenced based on strong evidence that teens are less culpable than adults because of brain development.  Research also indicates that teens are more likely to respond positively to rehabilitation.

Mr. Hill has ignored this research.  Instead of exploring the possibility of redemption he has chosen a path that has destroyed the lives of these boys and their families.  We have recently learned that the mother of Blake Layman has not physically touched her son for a year.  This is because the Elkhart County Jail will not allow a 16-year-old boy to hug his mother.  This is shocking, abusive behaviour that is being condoned by the Sheriff and the County Prosecutor.  This behaviour also demonstrates that these elected officials have put no thought or concern into child development or the emotional and mental health needs of a human being the law deems not old enough to vote, drink or serve in the military.  This abusive behaviour is proof that these elected officials, part of the political elite, don’t value redemption . . . instead they are willing to throw away 3 underage kids . . .exposing them to the worst society has to offer for decades.(*** See our note on this at the bottom***)

In our article 2 Cases, Similar Facts Different Outcomes we documented a case out of Alabama which is a very similar to The Elkhart 4.  The main difference is that the authorities took the juvenile status of the defendants into consideration.  Why can this happen elsewhere, but not in Elkhart?  We believe that Mr. Hill and his colleague either have very little understanding of juvenile issues, or worse of all they don’t care and have chosen to ignore them.

Mr. Hill would counter this argument with his standard line that he needs to be harsh on crime to protect the community and send a message.  In several articles comparing US crime to international statistics  (How Would Canada Deal With The Elkhart 4,  It will cost taxpayers at least 3.1 Million To Send The Elkhart 4 To Prison, Responding To Our Readers:  A Closer Look At Crime In Canada and the USA) we have shown how Mr. Hill’s stated motivations do not hold up when statistics and evidence are considered.

3.  Who is holding Curtis Hill to account?

In the last election for Elkhart County Prosecutor in 2010 Curtis Hill did not have an opponent.  He was the only person on the ballot.  In the absence of political opposition one might hope that the local media might take up the role, but in two articles we wrote on The Goshen News and The Elkhart Truth (click to link to the articles) we have demonstrated that this is not happening.  Since we wrote our article about the reporting of The Elkhart Truth their reporting has improved, slightly and we have publically acknowledged that.  As for the Goshen News things continue to be dismal.  William Randolph Hearst once said “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”  A good example (not related to this case) of the advertisement dressed as news can be found in this article describing the day – to – day life in county jail.  This is exactly what Hearst warned us of . . . .an advertisement dressed up as news.  In this case The Goshen News is providing an advertisement for The Elkhart County Jail, an institution that supports such abusive policies of not allowing a 16-year-old boy to hug his mother for an entire year.

Curtis Hill and his friends, the political elite of Elkhart County, need to be held to account.  It is not just them . . .it is all politicians.  But this is a real concern in Elkhart County.   In a rare and fantastic editorial, in The Elkhart Truth, published on September 21 the paper revealed that people can not “find not readily available statistics to use in assessing the city’s crime rates.”  The editorial continues “Elkhart has not provided data for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports since 2010.”  The editorial asks “without data how can they [political elite] make informed decisions?”  The reality is informed decisions are not being made.  Why is this not huge news . . . the political elite don’t know the crime rates in Elkhart.  Mr. Hill stands around saying he needs to be tough on crime to send a message, but they don’t even know what the rate of crime is.  This is not a failure.  This is incompetence . . . who is holding these people to account?


The political elite in Elkhart County, like Mr. Hill, have no effective opposition.  The local media is not holding politicians to account (except for one or two editorials in The Elkhart Truth).   Things need to change.


There are no easy answers, but here are our suggestions (please add more at the bottom).

  1. We need to work within the system — It is the only way that change will happen.
  2. Keep telling the story of the Elkhart 4 – every time I spend 5 minutes talking to someone about this case they cannot believe that this is what has happened.
  3. Get the story into the national and international media.  We belive that Elkhart and this case has the potential to become a must cover story for national and international media discussing juvenile injustice in the USA.  Imagine how Mr. Hill will feel when Dateline, 48 Hours, BBC, CBC and others arrive in Elkhart to cover this.  We already know of one documentary being made about this – we need to keep the pressure on.
  4. With no functioning opposition it is time for citizen to challenge the decisions made by the political elite.  Writing letters to those in power, writing the local press demanding answers and keeping this story alive is how you do it.  Mr. Hill benefits the minute this story and these boys disappear.  He wants The Elkhart 4 to disappear into the dark hole that is the Indiana Prison.  Those of us who support these kids can’t let that happen.
  5. Citizens need to actively find qualified people who will run in the next election and take on people like Mr. Hill.  He can’t get another free ride.  The opposition might not win, but the political elite needs to feel the pressure of a population actively engaged in the political process.  It is imperative that Mr. Hill is not given another free ride into the Prosecutors Office.
  6. We need to support the families and The Elkhart 4 as they go through some of the most challenging and painful moments of their lives.
  7. We need to support the upcoming appeals.  Success in these appeals are not just important for Blake, Jose, Levi and Anthony . . . they are important for all of us if we want a justice system that takes juvenile justice seriously.  These appeals are important if we want to ensure that the application of laws cannot be broadened in county court and the office of the prosecutor.  These appeals are important if we believe in punishing someone for what they have done, not because of some abstract interpretation of a law.

This case is not only about The Elkhart 4 it is about fairness and justice.  It is about politicians and holding them to account for their decisions.  It is not about being soft on crime.  This blog has always maintained that these boys needed consequences.  But it is about smart justice systems, political honesty and using facts, research and experts when making decisions.

NOTE *** To be fully clear we at believe that the most simple and basic moral standard for being in positions of leadership is allowing a 16 year old to safely hug his mother as much as is possible or needed.  We cannot imagine any situation where the authorities in Elkhart could not make this happen.  The fact that it did not happen is a reflection on the authorities and they should be held to account.  It is horrid behaviour and in our opinion a complete abuse of power.


Indiana Law Code — Murder and Felony Murder

Website for Indiana State Representative Ryan Dvorak

The Goshen News — Advertisement for the Sheriff Office