Did Curtis Hill Ignore the Juvenile Factor In The Case of The Elkhart 4?

“Any mandatory adult sentence for a juvenile convicted of felony murder, even if not life without parole, is constitutionally suspect.  A sentencer must be able to fashion an appropriate sentence for a juvenile convicted of felony murder, and should not be required to impose a mandatory sentence designed for adults convicted of the offense.”  Emily C. Keller – Constitutional Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Felony Murder in the Wake of Roper, Graham & J.D.B.

On September 12, 2013 Elkhart County Judge Terry Shewmaker sentenced Blake Layman to 55 years and Levi Sparks to 50 years in the Indiana Department of Corrections for felony murder.   In December 2012 co-accused Jose Quiroz accepted a plea deal of 45 years in prison and 10 years probation.  All three were juveniles when at the time of their crime.  None of the three boys killed their friend Danzele Johnson whose murder they were convicted of.  In fact 21-year-old Danzele Johnson was a co-perpetrator with Layman, Sparks and Quiroz.  Johnson was shot by the homeowner of the house the boys and young adults were breaking into.

In Indiana the mandatory adult sentence for murder and felony murder is between 45 and 65 years.  In both charging and sentencing the judge and Elkhart Country Prosecutor Curtis Hill did not take the age into account in any way.  Instead Judge Shewmaker and Curtis Hill have elected to throw these boys into the adult prison system for a crime that needed to be adjudicated in juvenile courts.  Free The Elkhart 4 has already documented cases in Alabama and Florida with very similar facts, but instead of going the adult route judges and state prosecution have found the juvenile system a better fit to deal with the juveniles while respecting the moral imperative of juvenile justice.

The problem in the way the case of The Elkhart 4 has been handled is that the political elite in Elkhart County (Judge Shewmaker and Curtis Hill) has failed to recognize that currently there is a significant shift across the USA in how juvenile criminal issues are being dealt with.  This has radically changed the moral imperative of juvenile justice in the USA.  This shift is a result of four major decisions by The Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS).  These decisions have encoded into the legal system a real and important difference between juveniles and adults.  These differences were ignored by Elkhart County in the way they dealt with Blake Layman, Jose Quiroz and Levi Sparks.

In this article we are going to examine these four decisions and look and look at how they were ignored in the criminal case against these teens.

2005 – Roper v. Simmons

In this landmark ruling SCOTUS made death sentences unconstitutional for any person convicted of a crime committed under the age of 18.  In the decision SCOTUS found three main differences between juveniles and adults.  These three differences are “lack of maturity”, an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and the fact that teens are easily susceptible to “negative influences and outside pressures”.   The court stated, “it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievable depraved character.”  Emily Keller notes “the Court recognized that the majority of youth who commit crimes will not grow up to be lifetime offenders, and that even experts cannot differentiate between the offenders whose crimes are merely a function of their age and immaturity and those rare juvenile offenders whose crimes will persist throughout their life”.

The Roper ruling clearly established a legal difference between juveniles and adults in the criminal court system.  The justices relied upon new research into human development to differentiate the harshest punishments juvenile offenders can face in the USA.  The court also recognised that the fact a youth who commits a crime it is not an indicator that they will be career criminals as adults.

2010 – Graham v. Florida

In Graham v. Florida SCOTUS ruled it unconstitutional for states to sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide offences.  Keller describes the ruling “As compared to an adult murderer, children ‘who did not kill or intend to kill’ have a ‘twice diminished’ moral culpability due to both their age and the nature of the crime.”  The courts used current research on teenage brain development and said that juveniles should have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  The Graham ruling further expanded the legal difference between juvenile offenders and adult offenders.

In the case of the Elkhart 4 Jose Quiroz, Blake Layman and Levi Sparks did not kill and they did not intend to kill and yet they received the same consequence as an adult . . . . for murder! In the Graham case SCOTUS states “children who did not kill or intend to kill have a twice diminished moral culpability due to both their age and the nature of the crime.”  This places the teens of the Elkhart 4 in an interesting legal position for two reasons.  The first reason is that they did not intend to kill, their crime was burglary, not murder.  The second reason is that unlike many other juvenile felony murder prosecutions the teens and the young adult co-perpetrators did not do the killing.  Instead in this case the actual killing was done by an external force, the homeowner.

2011 — J.D.B. v. North Carolina

In this case the court relied on the scientific studies used in Roper and Graham to show that juveniles are different from adults in legal terms.  In this case J.D.B was in his early teens when the police and administration at his middle school pulled him into an empty class to ask him questions about some local robberies.  The police questioned the boy for about an hour in the room, without his parent or guardian, before they read him his Miranda Rights.  The police read the boy his Miranda Rights when they felt he was ready to confess to the robberies.  SCOTUS ruled that an adult understand the difference between being asked questions by the police and being in police custody.  In the case of J.D.B., given the presence of the police and school administration, the boy would not have known that he was not in police custody and he had a right to leave the questioning at any time.  The court threw out the confession and ordered the case back to the North Carolina courts.  The court ruled that teens were different and because their age.

This ruling established a legal precedent that being a juvenile is not just a product of age.  SCOTUS ruled that there are significant and important differences in the behavior and perceptions of juveniles that make them different from adults.

2012 – Miller v. Alabama

In Miller v. Alabama SCOTUS ruled that states could not sentence juveniles to mandatory life without parole sentences.  Instead the sentencing judge needed to take the age of the defendant and the circumstances of the crime into account at sentencing.  Again the court relied on the scientific evidence that juveniles are different from adults.

The Moral Imperative

These four major decisions over the past eight years provide a new moral imperative for the courts in the USA.  SCOTUS, the highest court in the land,  has established that juvenile offenders are different from adult offenders and need to be treated differently.  The paradox is that because life without parole was not an option in punishing Layman, Quiroz and Sparks their age was not seen by the judge or prosecutor as an issue at trial or at sentencing.  (This paradox was overcome in similar cases we have documented in Alabama and Florida)

Curtis Hill the Elkhart County Prosecutor has publically said that “People breaking into homes when there is someone there or someone not there, it has to stop and from our stand point we are going to use every available measure under the law to stop it.”  Curtis Hill is justifying charging and convicting these boys with felony murder by stating that the charge will deter other would be criminals.  Mr. Hill is doing this even though SCOTUS has strongly suggested that using the felony murder law to deter crime is not very effective.  In a different case (Enmund v. Florida) SCOTUS quashed a felony murder death sentence stating that the court was “quite unconvinced” that a death sentence would “deter one who does not kill and has no intention or purpose that life will be taken”.   Also SCOTUS believes that teens will not see the harsh punishment as a deterrent.  SCOTUS does this in the Roper and Graham rulings where the court ruled that because juveniles are unlikely to “take a possible punishment into consideration when making decisions” because the “same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest as well the juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence.”  So the excuse of charging and punishing these juveniles to act as a deterrent does not measure up to what SCOTUS believes.

But Mr. Hill and his legal team went further.  According to reporting, by Jillian Mahen of ABC 57 News, “Elkhart County prosecutors held firm that the teens needed to be held accountable for their actions and encouraged the jury to make their decision without prejudice towards boys’ ages.”

At the trial of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks who were both juveniles at the time of the crime Elkhart County Prosecutors encouraged the jurors to not take age into consideration.  They did this, ignoring the moral imperative set out in SCOTUS in Roper, Graham, J.D.B and Miller.  This imperative states that the age of juveniles is an important factor that must be taken into account when dealing with juveniles.   In Elkhart Indiana not only did they ignore the moral imperative; they instructed the jury to ignore it as well.

Ignoring the fact that Blake Layman and Levi Sparks were teens should play a central role in the upcoming appeals.  The opinions of SCOTUS in Roper, Graham, J.D.B and Miller provide lawyers with a good legal basis to make an extremely strong argument.  This combined with the ambiguity of the current Indiana Felony Murder Law as we have already documented should make these appeals extremely important not just for Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Jose Quiroz, but also for the legal system in Indiana.

**We document the ambiguity of the Indiana felony murder law in two articles: Is Curtis Hill Using the Elkhart 4 to Expand Felony Murder Rule in Indiana? and Most State Felony Murder Laws Would Not Apply To The Elkhart 4


Constitutional Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Felony Murder in the Wake of Roper, Graham & J.D.B. (Emily C. Keller)

Supreme Court Of The United States Rulings:

Roper v. Simmons — http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-633.ZS.html

Graham v. Florida — http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-7412modified.pdf

J.D.B v. North Carolina — http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-11121.pdf

Miller v. Alabama — http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-9646.pdf

Enmund v. Florida — http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0458_0782_ZO.html

Other Sites Referenced