One Week Until the Elkhart 4’s Supreme Court Hearing

In a little over one week, on Thursday February 26, 2015, the case of the Elkhart 4 will have a hearing at the Indiana Supreme Court.  In this hearing lawyers for Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp will argue that the Indiana felony murder law was inappropriately charged given the facts of the Elkhart 4 case.  Lawyers representing the Government of Indiana will argue that the way the law was used in this case was appropriate.  The forth member of the Elkhart 4, Jose Quiroz, will not be represented at this hearing because of his plea deal.

The hearing at the Indiana Supreme Court comes after the Indiana Appeals Court upheld the convictions.  What is interesting is that in the cases of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks two of the three appeals judges were not impressed with how the law was applied in this case and suggested that the Indiana Supreme Court needs to have a close look at the facts.

Justice May stated:

I note initially that the language of the felony murder statute suggests the legislature did not intend it to be applied to a situation like that before us, where the killing was committed by one resisting the felony and not by any defendant. That statute provides: “A person who . . . kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit . . . burglary . . . commits murder, a felony.” Ind. Code § 35-42-1-1. Neither Layman nor Sparks killed another human being while committing their burglary.

 

 

she continues,

 

 

Layman, Sparks, and amici argue persuasively that we should reconsider Palmer, but we may not accept their invitation to do so. Indiana Supreme Court precedent is binding on us until it is changed by that court or by legislative enactment. Dragon v. State, 774 N.E.2d 103, 107 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), trans. denied. Indiana Appellate Rule 65(A) authorizes us to criticize existing law, but it is not our role to “reconsider” Supreme Court decisions.

 

 

Justice May in her opinion felt strongly that felony murder, given the facts of this case, should not be applied to minors writing,

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” like adults do.

Justice Kirsch goes further stating,

In both Palmer and Jenkins, the Court concluded that the defendants’ conduct clearly raised the foreseeable possibility that the intended victim might resist or that law enforcement would respond and thereby created a risk of death to persons present and that the defendant’s felonious conduct was the mediate or immediate cause of the co-perpetrator’s death.

Here, by contrast, sixteen-year old Blake Layman and seventeen-year old Levi Sparks were (1) unarmed and (2) attempting to commit a non-violent 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.

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.

By careful reading of the rulings by Justices May and Kirsch as well as the ruling of Justice Bailey, which upheld the convictions, we can begin to understand how the issues of felony murder and the juvenile status of Levi Sparks and Blake Layman will play out in the upcoming hearing before the Indiana Supreme Court.

If you are interested you can watch the Indiana Supreme Court hearing online here.  The case will be heard on Thursday February 26, 2015 starting at 10:30 am.  Live streaming from the Indiana Supreme Court will begin 2 minutes before the hearing (estimated at 10:28 am EST)