Appeals Update #7 — The Brief of the Indiana Public Defender Council
We have obtained copies of many of the briefs recently filed in the Indiana Court of Appeals for the felony murder convictions of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks. Over the next couple of weeks we will be publishing these briefs with our comments about their content. The first brief we are going to focus on is the amicus curiae brief filed in support of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks by the Indiana Public Defender Council. Here is the PDF file containing the brief of the Indiana Public Defender Council.
The brief for the Indiana Public Defender Council is mainly focused on the felony murder rule in Indiana and the way it was applied in the case of The Elkhart 4. Their brief supports many of the arguments this blog has been making about this case over the past few months. This blog has pointed out several times the fact that in the local and national media there has been a failure to accurately report how the felony murder law is enforced nationwide. This failure was most publicly pronounced during the January 17th episode of Dr. Phil when Sunny Hostin the legal expert stated when asked about how the felony murder statute was applied in this case,
“Yeah, it is typical felony murder, it is typical felony murder. You see it all over the country. The fact that a co-defendant, a co-conspirator dies during the commission of a felony makes no difference.”
In our article Did Sunny Hostin Make A Huge Mistake on Dr. Phil we expose the error in Sunny Hostin’s legal opinion. Basically here is the problem . . . . there is an assumption that felony murder is when someone is killed during a felony those who commit the felony are guilty of first degree murder. In most states this is not true. In most states if a person who is committing the initial felony is killed then the other felons cannot be charged with felony murder. Until this month this reality was best shown by reading the West Virginia Case of Fox v. Davis. In this case the court reviews several felony murder statutes across the USA to show that that majority of states do not allow for a felony murder charge when a co-perpetrator is killed. Adding to the Fox v. Davis decision is the brief filed by the Indiana Public Defender Council in support of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks. This brief states that approximately 13 states allow for felony murder prosecution when a co-defendant is killed by the victim or a by-stander. The brief then looks specifically at Indiana Law. The Indiana felony murder statue states,
A person who 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.
Ryan Dvorak an Indiana State Representative has said about this law “If you actually read the statute, the language of the statute probably would not apply to the kids in this case (Elkhart 4)” The brief filed by the Indiana Public Defender Council agrees with what Mr. Dvorak says. The Indiana Public Defender Council in their brief state “The plain language of the felony murder statute does not permit a conviction when the defendant’s co-perpetrator was the victim”. They then go on to point out that this legal basis for a co-perpetrator to be charged comes from the case State v. Palmer. We have covered the case State v. Palmer in detail in our article Is Curtis Hill Using the Case of the Elkhart 4 to Expand the Felony Murder Rule in Indiana. The argument that the Indiana Public Defender Council is making is that the court interpreted the law in a way the legislature did not mean for it to be interpreted. As proof the Indiana Public Defender Council goes back to the 13 states which allow for a co-prepetrator to be charged with the death of an accomplice. The brief argues that in those states the language of the statute explicitly allows for a co-perpetrator to be charged. This brief argues that Indiana is an outlier because the way the law is written does not support the way it is enforced in some cases, including the case of The Elkhart 4. This ambiguity in the law leaves room for the Indiana Public Defender Council to argue that the way the law is enforced in Indiana is not “consistent with the ‘long-cherished principle of the American justice system . . .that a citizen may not be prosecuted for a crime without clearly falling within the statutory language defining the crime.” Finally the brief reminds the Court of Appeal in footnote 1,
Although this Court cannot overrule an Indiana Supreme Court case (State v. Palmer), it can – and appropriately has – expressed it respectful disagreement and urged the Indiana Supreme Court to reconsider precedent.
The footnote then explores some of those precedents. The brief asks the court to “express its disagreement with Palmer” and “because the 45-65 year sentencing range is disproportionate to the nature of the offence, remand is appropriate for imposition of a sentence that may not exceed with years, the maximum sentence for a Class C felony.”
This brief was written by Joel M. Schumm a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Larry Landis who is the Executive Director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. They were supported by Certified Legal Interns Matthew Hayes, Danielle Teagarden and Shea Thompson who are all from the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.