Layman and Sparks: The Juvenile Question After the Supreme Court Decision

Imagine this situation . . . . two 16 year old kids steal some beer from a unoccupied house. They are caught and arrested. When the kids names are entered into the state criminal database the arresting officer learns that one of the teens had been convicted a few years earlier for stealing some candy from a store. The office learns that in the candy store robbery a juvenile judge transferred the case to adult court where the kid was convicted. The one kid with the previous adult record is sent directly to adult court while the other kid is sent for a hearing in juvenile court. The reason for this is the “once an adult, always an adult” doctrine.

The “once an adult, always an adult” doctrine means that once a juvenile has been found guilty in an adult court they are never able to return to juvenile court no matter how trivial the charge. This doctrine is present in many states, including Indiana.

Although the hypothetical story above has very different facts than the Elkhart 4 case, the “once an adult always an adult” provision of Indiana transfer laws now becomes a very controversial part of the post Indiana Supreme Court case against the Elkhart 4, specifically Blake Layman and Levi Sparks who were juveniles at the time they committed their crime.

In the fall of 2012 Elkhart Country Prosecutor Curtis Hill charged Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, Jose Quiroz and Anthony Sharp with felony murder. Jose Quiroz reached a plea deal. Layman, Sparks and Sharp were found guilty after a trial and sentenced to between 50 and 55 years in prison. (Read a full account of this story here). In early 2015 the case was argued before the Indiana Supreme Court and on September 18, 2015 the court released its decision (read the decision here — Layman and Sparks ISC Decision ). The Indiana Supreme Court vacated the felony murder convictions and sent Layman, Sparks and Sharp back to Elkhart County to be sentenced on a felony class B burglary conviction.  Jose Quiroz was not included in the appeal and had not had his conviction vacated (see our story on Jose here).

In Indiana anyone over 16 charged with murder is automatically transferred to adult court. In Indiana anyone over 16 charged with class B felony burglary is sent to a juvenile court where the juvenile justice decides if the case should be heard in juvenile court or in adult court (Indiana Transfer Code).  If a guilty verdict is reached the punishments are very different depending on if the trial was held in juvenile or adult court.

So Layman and Sparks never had a hearing in juvenile court because they were charged with felony murder – a crime with a mandatory transfer to adult court.

The Indiana Supreme Court has now vacated the felony murder conviction (read decision here – Layman and Sparks ISC Decision). This means that Blake Layman and Levi Sparks no longer convicted murderers. In the ruling the Indiana Supreme Court said,

“while the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for the underlying burglary, it is not sufficient to sustain a conviction for felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary.”

Funny enough, Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill only charged Layman and Sparks with felony murder. Not the underlying crime of burglary.   In felony murder cases it is rare for the underlying crime not to be charged along with felony murder charge. This omission caused comment from the Indiana Supreme Court, which stated,

“for reasons that are unclear from the record before us the State did not follow common practice and file an additional count of burglary against the defendants. It chose instead to file a single count of felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary.”

So now we come to sentencing.   Specifically the sentencing of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks.

Will they be sentenced as adults? Will they be sentenced as juveniles? Will they have the opportunity to appear before a juvenile judge? The answer is not clear.

On first glance their age at the time of the crime would suggest, at the very minimum, a hearing before a juvenile judge.

But then there is the “once and adult, always an adult” doctrine. Indiana transfer law states,

“The ‘juvenile law does not apply to’ a child who is accused of a crime and has previously been waived to adult court. In addition, even if there was no waiver involved in the previous case, a child who was convicted in adult court of a felony or nontraffic misdemeanor and is subsequently charged with a felony is automatically waived.”

Blake Layman and Levi Sparks were convicted of the adult crime of felony murder so the juvenile option is not available . . .but wait, the Indiana Supreme Court threw out that conviction . . . so they have not been convicted in an adult court of a felony.

In 2012 had they only been charged with class B felony burglary Blake Layman and Levi Sparks would have appeared first before a juvenile court. This did not happen . . . Layman and Sparks have never appeared before a juvenile court.

The Indiana Supreme Court using the facts from the felony murder case convicted Layman and Sparks of class B felony but remained silent on their juvenile/adult status.

Is this a violation of their right to appear before a juvenile justice to decide if the burglary charges will be juvenile or adult? Does “once an adult, always an adult” apply after the highest court in the state has vacated that adult crime? These are key questions that need to be answered over the next few weeks.

In an article in the Indianapolis Star Blake Layman’s lawyer Cara Wieneke says she is exploring to see if Blake can be punished as a juvenile. The lawyer for Levi Sparks is also exploring the possibility.

In the same article Larry Landis, the executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council points out that Indiana does not have a reverse waiver statute. According to Landis this means that there is no way for Layman and Sparks to have their cases transferred to juvenile court because they have already been through an adult court. Landis’s opinion seem to be supported in a recent tweet we received from Northwestern University Professor Steven Drizin (see Dr. Drizin’s Elkhart 4 Huffington Post Article here) who said,

Drizin Transfer

In the Spring 2015 issue of the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality Kaitlin Pegg published an article entitled “The ‘Once and Adult, Always an Adult’ Doctrine: More Harm Than Good”. In this article she examines many of the concerning outcomes of this aspect of transfer law.

She highlights the concern with automatic transfer (which happened to Levi and Blake when they were initially charged) stating,

“transfer mechanisms such as statutory exclusion of certain crimes provide no assessment of mitigating factors, so juveniles may have been initially transferred without any consideration of culpability or psychological development”

This means that at no time during the Elkhart 4 case have Levi, Blake (and also Jose) ever had the fact that they are juveniles considered (see our article on juveniles here and here).

She continues stating,

Although most jurisdictions require that a previous transfer result in conviction for the “once an adult, always an adult” doctrine to apply, this is not always the case. In two states – California and Delaware – if a juvenile was assigned to adult court previously, even absent a conviction, he or she is automatically transferred to an adult court for all subsequent crimes. In these states, juveniles who have been found not guilty in the eyes of the law are still automatically transferred to adult courts for subsequent charges.

Ms. Pegg is based at Indiana University Bloomington. She would know the law in Indiana. The fact that she did not mention Indiana in the same category as California and Delaware suggests that in Indiana the “once and adult, always an adult” doctrine does not apply to Blake and Levi seeing as they are no longer convicted of felony murder.

There are going to be interesting discussions and arguments in Elkhart County as lawyers for both sides figure out how to proceed with the upcoming sentencing of Blake Layman and Levi Sparks.

In a final note, the juvenile question is also a concern with Jose Quiroz, another of the Elkhart 4.  Jose accepted a plea deal so his journey through the criminal justice system is very different than the journey of Blake, Levi and Anthony.  Even though it is different we believe the juvenile factor should not be ignored by the authorities in the coming weeks.


  • If Hill doesn’t want to lose another appeal, these boys better be transferred back to juvenile court. Since they are no longer convicted adults of felony murder, it would seem to me to be a matter of jurisprudence.

  • You guys really do think that home invasion is akin to candy bar theft, don’t you?

    Even if they were given a juvenile hearing, this is about the easiest waiver decision imaginable. 16-year-olds who merely burglarize a home are generally sent to adult court. In this case, somebody DIED.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Had you read our article in full you would have understood that the candy bar situation was an easy way for us to illustrate the “once an adult, always an adult” doctrine. Perhaps when we stated “the hypothetical story above has very different facts than the Elkhart 4” you would have clued into this fact.

      Had you read the decision of the Indiana Supreme Court you would have also come to understand how the legal doctrine of double jeopardy now prevents the court from holding the death of Danzele Johnson against Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp. Footnotes 7 and 8 goes into this in great detail showing how the Felony B Burglary conviction is the only way the court could proceed because a Felony A conviction would take into account the death (or injury) of Mr. Johnson. That can’t happen because of double jeopardy. The court stated: “However, because we have vacated the felony murder conviction the common law rule that prohibits elevating the burglary conviction based on the same bodily injury forming the basis for the murder conviction is not applicable.”. This means the courts can’t hold the death or the bodily injury against these boys because of the vacated verdict and their double jeopardy rights.

      Perhaps you are right about a juvenile court sending the case back to adult court . . . but that does not mean that Blake Layman and Levi Sparks should not have their day to argue their side.