Supreme Court Update #3 — New Date for Oral Arguments

The appeals filed by Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp will be heard by the Indiana Supreme Court on February 26, 2015 starting at 10:30 am. The Indiana Law Blog is reporting that the date has changed to February because of a scheduling conflict. According to the case file on the Indiana Supreme Court webpage the hearing will be 40 minutes. 20 minutes will be given to the State of Indiana and 20 minutes will be given to the Elkhart 4.

Over the next few weeks the lawyers representing Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp as well as the lawyers who filed the amicus briefs on behalf of the Indiana Public Defender Council and the Juvenile Law Center will need to decide how to divide up their allotted time.

The Indiana Law Blog is also reporting that the Indiana Supreme Court is especially interested in reviewing the application of the felony murder law in the case of the Elkhart 4.

If this is correct it stands to reason that the lawyers might want to highlight the amicus brief filed by the Indiana Public Defender Council. That brief specifically argues that the felony murder law should not apply in this case.  Also it is of interest that in the recent Layman/Sparks Court of Appeals ruling 2 of the 3 judges were very concerned that felony murder was charged in this case.

There is an old, but very interesting precedent that could inform this case. That precedent comes from Pennsylvania in the 1950’s. There are three cases of importance. Commonwealth v. Almeida, Commonwealth v. Thomas and Commonwealth v. Redline.

In the Almeida case there was a gun battle between two robbers and police. One of the officers was shot and killed.  Almeida, the other robber, was convicted and sentenced to death. It was later discovered that the bullet that killed the robber was shot by another police officer. The conviction won on appeal (although the death sentence was reduced to life in another legal issue).

The next case is Commonwealth v. Thomas. In this case, two men, including Thomas, robbed a store. As they left the store the storekeeper chased after them and shot one of the robbers dead. Thomas, the surviving robber, was charged with felony murder and was convicted. The Pennsylvania Courts upheld Thomas’s conviction.

This change, allowing someone to be convicted of felony murder when a co-felon was killed by a third party, was very controversial and was discussed in many law journals across the USA.

In 1956 the Louisiana Law Review wrote about the case,

 A proper application of the felony-murder rule involves a balancing of the need for protection of society with the humanitarian concept that the punishment should be no more severe than the gravity of the individual’s conduct warrants.’ The Pennsylvania solution in the instant case tends to ignore the latter element. Although the language of the Louisiana court in the Bessar case is broad, it should be construed in the light of the actual holding of that case, and does not necessarily imply that the felony-murder doctrine should be carried to the extreme of imposing responsibility where one of the perpetrators is justifiably killed. It is submitted that a judicious balancing of the factors already mentioned should preclude the Louisiana courts from following the regrettable extension of the felony-murder doctrine in Pennsylvania.

Two years later in 1958 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania again heard a felony murder appeal. In this case two men robbed a restaurant. As they left the restaurant they saw 2 police officers. A gun fight occurred and one of the robbers was killed. The other robber, whose last name was Redline, was convicted of felony murder.  The case Commonwealth v. Redline has become one of the most important felony murder presidents in Pennsylvania.

It would seem that this appeal would have been easily defeated based on the precedent set in the Almeida and Thomas cases. While in fact the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Redline could not be convicted of felony murder. Here is what the court wrote,

In the Thomas case, the defendant was held answerable to an indictment for murder for the killing of his accomplice by the victim of their robbery, the malice requisite being imputed because of the defendant’s contemporaneous participation in the initial felony. The conclusion reached in the Thomas case was a further extension of the felony-murder doctrine as applied in Commonwealth v. Almeida. The opinion for the court in the Thomas case relied for its principal authority on the decision in Almeida and also cited the more recent case of Commonwealth v. Bolish, 381 Pa. 500, 113 A.2d 464. But, Bolish is plainly distinguishable from Almeida, while the instant case, whose operative evidential elements are basically similar to those of the Thomas case, is distinguishable from both Almeida and Bolish. The decision in theAlmeida case was a radical departure from common law criminal jurisprudence; and the ruling should not be extended by still further judicial enlargement. A review of relevant authorities will so confirm.

The only constitutional power competent to define crimes and prescribe punishments therefor is the legislature, and courts do well to leave the promulgation of police regulations to the people’s chosen legislative representatives. No killing under circumstances such as the instant case presents had ever before been declared murder in this State prior to the ruling in Commonwealth v. Thomas, supra. If predominant present-day thinking should deem it necessary to the public’s safety and security that felons be made chargeable with murder for all deaths occurring in and about the perpetration of their felonies — regardless of how or by whom such fatalities came — the legislature should be looked to for competent exercise of the State’s sovereign police power to that end which has never yet been legislatively ordained.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania realized that successively through the Almeida, Thomas and potentially the Redline rulings they were expanding the definition of the crime of felony murder in the state. By not allowing Redline’s conviction to stand the court reminded citizens that it the job of the legislature to define crimes, not the courts. Redline is still the established law in Pennsylvania.

The Indiana Supreme Court now needs to answer the same question the Pennsylvania Court answered decades ago. Through Palmer and now the Elkhart 4 is it the job of the courts to define crimes or the legislature?