A Very Good Result — Now to the Indiana Supreme Court

The Indiana Court of Appeals issued its rulings Friday on the appeals filed by Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp. The rulings upheld the felony murder convictions for all three, but ordered all three sentences reduced to the minimum — 45 years (with 10 years probation). On the surface many might think that this blog would be disappointed with this result . . . .in fact we are thrilled. A close reading of the decisions shows that this is a great result for all three, especially Levi and Blake.  

The writings of the judges show they are not pleased about how the judicial system acted in this case, but the the judges understand that the issues raised in the appeals need to be dealt with at the Indiana Supreme Court.

Those supporting the Elkhart 4 have always known that there was no way the Indiana Court of Appeals could throw out the application of the felony murder rule in this case. The court could not throw out the rule because of precedent rulings created by the Indiana Supreme Court (mainly State v. Palmer). In fact in the amicus brief filed by the Indian Public Defender Council supporters for the Elkhart 4 acknowledged this when they wrote,

“Although this Court cannot overrule and Indiana Supreme Court Case, it can – and appropriately has – expressed its respectful disagreement and urged the Indiana Supreme Court to reconsider precedent.”

The same brief concluded stating,

“The Indiana Public Defender Council respectfully requests this Court express its disagreement with Palmer.”

Well this is exactly what happened on Friday. In the main Layman/Sparks ruling (Court of Appeals Layman Sparks Ruling) the court wrote, “It is not this Court’s role to reconsider or declare invalid decisions of our Supreme Court.” There were three judges who heard the Layman/Sparks appeal and two of them wrote individual opinions in the case. Judge Melissa May wrote,

“Subjecting a juvenile who did not kill or intend to kill anyone to a murder prosecution in adult court based solely on the premise it was “foreseeable” to the juvenile that someone might be killed is problematic because juveniles do not “foresee” life adults do.”

Judge May continues,

“As the lead opinion’s outcome in the case before us is permitted by existing Indiana law, I must concur in the result. But I believe application of the agency** approach to prosecution of juvenile felony murder defendants, even though such defendants are subject to adult court jurisdiction, offers an approach more consistent with the spirit of Brown and Fuller than the “proximate cause**” approach required by Palmer”

**agency is when felony murder can only be charged when a co-felon kills someone.  Proximate is when felony murder is charged if anyone kills someone.

In this ruling Judge May believes that the court must uphold Indiana Law as determined by the Indiana Supreme Court, but Judge May does not agree with the law. Judge May believes that the agency approach to felony murder (when a co-felon kills) is the way Indiana should go when charging juveniles with felony murder.

Judge James S. Kirsch issued a dissenting ruling stating that he did not believe the Elkhart 4 committed felony murder. Judge Kirsch stated,

 “sixteen-year old Blake Layman and seventeen – year old Levi Sparks were (1) unarmed and (2) attempting to commit a non-violet burglary of what they believed was an unoccupied residence. The defendants here were attempting to commit a non-violent crime when the unforeseeable tragedy giving rise to this case unfolded.”

He continued,

Because the circumstances here are very different from those before the Court in Palmer and Jenkins, I respectfully dissent from my colleagues’ conclusion that Indiana Code section 35-42-1-1, the felony murder statute, was properly applied in this case.

It is interesting that Judge Kirsch’s argument against felony murder in this case closely resembles the arguments we put forward in an earlier article about the felony murder rule.

So of the three judges who heard the Levi Sparks/Blake Layman appeals two do not believe that Blake Layman and Levi Sparks should have been convicted of felony murder. That is a majority. The reason the convictions were upheld is because the Court of Appeals cannot overturn the Indiana Supreme Court.   This means that Layman and Sparks have a very good case to bring before the Indiana Supreme Court.

So what is the next step . . . the Indiana Supreme Court of course.

Read the Layman and Sparks ruling — Court of Appeals Layman Sparks Ruling

Read the Sharp ruling — Sharp’s Appeals Court Ruling