Elkhart 4 — Appeals Update #3

On Friday February 21, 2014 the lawyers for Blake Layman and Levi Sparks submitted their briefs to the Court of Appeals for the appeals of their felony murder convictions.  The State of Indiana now has 30 days to respond to these briefs.

In an interesting twist to the appeals The Indiana Public Defender Council has submitted an “Amicus Curiae” to the court.  An amicus curiae is when a party wishes to submit evidence in an appeal but they are not connected to any of the parties.  The Cornell Law Website defines an amicus curiae as,

 “Latin for “friend of the court.” Frequently, a person or group who is not a party to a lawsuit, but has a strong interest in the matter, will petition the court for permission to submit a brief in the action with the intent of influencing the court’s decision”

At this stage we do not have access to the briefs filed by the lawyers for Layman and Sparks or the amicus curiae.   There are some clues that we can use to speculate.  The lead attorney working on the amicus curiae for the Indiana Public Defender Council is Joel M. Schumm.  Professor Schumm is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Judicial Externship Program at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.  According to his biography Professor Schumm wrote a criminal appellate practice manual for Indiana lawyers which was published in 2008.   He is listed as one of the 27 “best lawyer in America” for appeals in Indiana.  According to his biography one of Professor Schumm’s areas of focus in juvenile justice.  Recently, Professor Schumm played an important role in the successful appeal of 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich transfer to adult court.  This success resulted in a  plea deal with the strong possibility of a reduced sentence.

Our main clue into Professor Schumm’s appearance in this case comes from an interview he did with The Elkhart Truth on September 21, 2013.  This interview specifically focused on the case of The Elkhart 4.  This blog wrote about this interview in our article The Elkhart Truth Article: A good start, but 353 days late!  In this interview Professor Schumm points out that there are three grounds for appeal in this case which lawyers might consider.  Those grounds for appeal are,

  • multiple defendants
  • the fact “that it’s one of the defendants, not the victim, who died during the commission of a crime, and that it was the homeowner — the victim — who fired the shots.”
  • Three of the boys were juveniles at the time (Levi, Blake and Jose)

Unfortunately, as we pointed out in our article “The Elkhart Truth Article: A good start, but 253 days late!” the journalist for the Elkhart Truth did not go into enough detail with Professor Schumm.  A more comprehensive article would have provided all interested parties in a more detailed understanding of his opinion on this case.  This added information would have been greatly appreciated given Professor Schumm’s active role in these appeals.

There is however enough information for us to speculate that Professor Schumm will focus on the juvenile status of Layman and Sparks in the amicus curiae.  We know that he is an advocate for juveniles and has worked on juvenile cases in Indiana including the case of Paul Henry Gingerich.

In The Elkhart Truth interview Professor Schumm reminds everyone that the felony murder charge in the case of Layman, Sparks, Quiroz and Sharp comes out of the Indiana Supreme Court Decision Palmer v. State.  We have discussed this decision in depth in our article Is Curtis Hill Using the Case of The Elkhart 4 to Expand the Felony Murder Rule in Indiana.  Professor Schumm reminds readers of the fact that the case of Palmer v. State established the requirement that it is “foreseeable” that a death could occur through the actions of the defendants.

In the interview Professor Schumm stated,

“Over the last several years there has been discussion about how juveniles assess situations differently from adults”

 “I assume the argument could be made in appeal that whether this is foreseeable or not should be different because a juvenile’s involved,”

“Maybe an adult would or should foresee that but a juvenile, if they talked about breaking into someone’s house to take something, it’s probably not as foreseeable to them that someone might end up getting shot as a result.”

Given all of this information we believe that Professor Schumm and his team will be questioning if the felony murder rule as applied in this case is appropriate given the juvenile status of three of the defendants (Layman, Sparks and Quiroz).  Of course this argument will only be focusing on Layman and Sparks since they are the defendants appealing.

In the last 10 years there has been a massive change in the way courts are dealing with juvenile defendants.  Since 2005 there have been 4 major Supreme Court Cases (2005 Roper v. Simmons, 2010 Graham v. Florida, 2011 J.B.D. v. North Carolina and 2012 Miller v. Alabama) that has relied upon scientific research which has shown that brain development in teenagers impacts decision making processes and predicting and understanding consequences.  This research is highlighted in Steve Drizen’s Huffington Post article on The Elkhart 4.   These court decisions are requiring state courts  and legislatures to take the age of defendants into account in even the most serious criminal cases.  Many people who support the convictions of the Elkhart 4 have chosen to ignore the juvenile issue and the connected science.  This is a serious omission and those who support this conviction should take note, because courts across the US led by the Supreme Court, are not ignoring this evidence.

The fact that the issue of juvenile justice could be central to the appeals was not lost on Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill who stated in a news conference “But the greater reality is that the law has been applied in an appropriate manner, in a fair manner. The fact that these particular individuals were of younger years occurs, and the court takes that into consideration”.   The problem Mr. Hill has is that on the Dr. Phil Show the juror stated that “you look at the guidelines and age wasn’t a part of it and so you had to put that off to the side”.  Mr. Hill is directly contradicted by a juror who played an active role in this trial.  This contradiction is significant and the lawyers filing these appeals will have taken notice.  Courts across the USA, including the Supreme Court, have been ruling that juvenile defendants ages cannot be ignored, and yet this is what appears to have happened to the Elkhart 4 according the juror.

We believe that the ignoring of age and the way the jury determined foreseeable danger will become central issues in these appeals and we believe that Professor Schumm and the legal experts from the Indiana Public Defenders Council will be writing their amicus curiae questioning the way this case was handled given the juvenile status of Layman and Sparks.





  • Great!! This sounds like a positive turn of events considering he has so much experience in juvenile justice!!!! The other boy was only 12 though. The youngest was 16 in this case….I hope that still lets him argue to the greatest extent of the law. Seems like a positive turn of events. Good luck!!

  • I have always agreed with the Felony Murder ruling in this case. But am happy they are getting the opportunity for their sentences to be substantially reduced. No one wins if they are in prison for 40 plus yrs. They deserve a second chance!

  • Its understandable that the Supreme court considers age to be relevant. But come on, comparing a 12 year olds’ criminal case to a case with the youngest being 16 yrs old, is a bit of a stretch. Now be honest with the facts – having a look out (Levi Sparks) – proves that the teens could forsee someone catching them in the act. Which in turn proves that in their premeditated minds of committing this crime – they were old enough to comprehend the outcome could be a violent one. If they are very very lucky, they might get their sentences cut in half. Thats the way it should be. A life was lost and they are to blame.

    • Please take the time to read the article! We have never compared this case to the case of 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich. We just mentioned that Professor Schumm worked on the Gingerich appeal as a way to show our readers the credentials of this top Indiana legal scholar. In fact the cases of The Elkhart 4 and Gingerich are very different. On the issue of juvenile justice which you seem willing to dismiss, the Supreme Court is the top court in the land and it has very clearly stated that age is relevant and it has stated that the age is 18. In our article we link to another article where we detail 4 SCOTUS cases in the last 9 years where the age of the defendant (being under 18) was a major issue. In the case of the Elkhart 4, three of the defendants were under the age of 18 so that makes age a very relevant issue. The argument is further enhanced given the fact that all of the recent research into the development of the adolescent brain specifically talks about 15, 16, 17 year old brains. In fact the research indicates that many brains are not fully developed until the mid 20’s, but legislatures and the courts have made 18 the age of majority. The opinion you are expressing here is a gut reaction that is not backed up by the latest scientific research or supported by the direction of many courts, governments, policy makers and legal experts who are tasked with dealing with juvenile justice. One of the unfortunate aspects of this case is the fact that Mr. Hill and his supporters chose to ignore the juvenile factor which has brought us to the situation we are currently in.

      • Thanks for your response. I understand and re read a couple of your points and references. I guess as a mother, I am scared that these boys are being set up to be let down again. We all know they could have had better defences and that Elkhart justice system seems corrupt. I just hope that with all these people who can provide good enough evidence of the teenage brain for them that it will be enough to get them “time served” or at the very least a heavily reduced sentence. I may believe they are responsible but they don’t belong in prison for that many years. As a mom myself I just pray they get a better representation this time so its fair on them.