Who Are The Elkhart 4
*** UPDATE *** On September 18, 2015 the Indiana Supreme Court vacated the felony murder convictions for Levi Sparks, Blake Layman and Anthony Sharp.
The Case of The Elkhart 4
In October 2012 four teens and one young adult from Elkhart County Indiana made a horrible decision that would change their lives forever. Not in school they decided one afternoon to break into a house. They knocked on doors and decided that one house was empty. Jose Quiroz (age 16), Blake Layman (age 16), Anthony Sharp (Age 18) and Danzele Johnson (age 21) broke into the house. Levi Sparks (age 17) waited on the porch of the house across the street.
Sleeping in the house at the time was Rodney Scott, the homeowner. Mr. Scott was awoken by the noise of the burglary. He grabbed his gun and shot several times. The bullets killed 21-year-old Danzele Johnson and wounded 16-year-old Blake Layman.
Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill made the decision to charge Blake, Jose, Levi and Anthony with felony murder for the death of Danzele Johnson. All were charged as adults. In some states felony murder is a law, which states that if someone dies during the commission of a felony everyone involved in the felony can be charged with first-degree murder. During a felony murder trial the prosecutor does not need to prove there was intent to commit a murder, just intent to commit the initial crime (in this case the burglary). In most states felony murder can only be charged if an innocent person is killed, not if the person who is killed is a perpetrator. Things are a little less clear in Indiana (see FAQ for an explaination).
16 year old Jose Quiroz accepted a plea deal. At sentencing Jose Quiroz said he wanted to withdrawal the deal. Judge Terry Shewmaker denied this request and sentenced a sixteen-year-old boy to 45 years in prison for a murder he did not do.
Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp went to trial in August of 2013. The trial lasted four days and was rushed. On the final day of the trial the judge refused to let the jury leave until they had reached a verdict. At 11:00 pm the jury returned with a guilty verdict. On September 12, 2013 Judge Shewmaker sentenced Blake Layman and Anthony Sparks to 55 years in prison and Levi Sparks to 50 years in prison. Again for a murder they did not do.
Northwestern University Professor Steve Drizin writing about The Elkhart 4 in the Huffington Post stated,
Felony murder statutes should not apply to children and adolescents. Such statutes rely on an assumption that an individual who takes part in a felony understands the risk that someone may get killed in the course of the felony. However, adolescent development and brain science research show that, compared with adults, children and teenagers are less able to perceive and assess risks. This research confirms what common sense tells us: adolescents are less capable decision-makers than adults — they are more impulsive, less risk-averse, and have difficulty assessing the consequences of their actions, often prioritizing short-term rewards over any potential long-term negative consequences. ( click here for the full article )
These boys did commit a crime in October of 2012 (burglary). It is awful that a frightened Rodney Scott killed Danzele Johnson. The behavior of Blake, Levi, Anthony and Jose cannot be condoned. These boys must learn an important lesson. A well functioning society can’t have people acting with such disregard to others . . . but, none of these boys murdered anyone . . . three of them were juveniles at the time . . . the person who died in this case was a friend. A friend who they continue to mourn for.
Do the actions of these boys warrant 55 years in prison with the worst of the worst? In our opinion this case demonstrates a huge overreach of the criminal justice system. Any possibility of redemption has been abandoned and these boys are being thrown away to spend their lives in a failing and often brutal prison system.
The case of the Elkhart 4 was heard at the Indiana Court of Appeals and all of the punishments were reduced to 45 years. Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court and won their appeal. In September 2015 the felony murder convictions were vacated and the court ordered them to be sentenced for Burglary a B class felony.
Frequently Asked Questions
This blog gets a lot of questions, here is a collection of the main questions that have been asked of us.
These boys broke the law. Why all the fuss?
Yes these boys broke the law. They committed a burglary. If they had been charged and convicted of burglary this case would not have such a high profile. The concern is the felony murder charge.
But the law is clear, they committed felony murder. Isn’t felony murder when someone dies during the commission of a felony?
The Elkhart 4 were tried in Indiana under that states felony murder law. The felony murder statute in Indiana 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.
The Indiana law clearly states that felony murder occurs when a ‘person’ kills someone while committing a felony. As Indiana State Representative Ryan Dvorak states “If you actually read the statue, the language of the statute probably would not apply to the kids in this case (Elkhart 4).” This is because Blake Layman, Jose Quiroz, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp did not kill Danzele Johnson. The homeowner killed Danzele Johnson, and the homeowner was not committing a felony.
You can read more about the Indiana felony murder law in our articles:
- Is Curtis Hill using the case of The Elkhart 4 to expand the felony murder rule in Indiana?
- One year on three questions Curtis Hill does not want us asking.
- Happy 2014 and the dangers of ignoring intent
But don’t most states have felony murder laws?
Yes, the majority of states in the USA do have felony murder laws. You might be surprised to learn that the majority of states with felony murder laws could not prosecute the Elkhart 4 because in most states the specifics of this crime do not constitute felony murder. In fact the way the felony murder law was presented on the Dr. Phil is not correct. We covered this in our article about the show.
You can read more about this in our article,
- Most felony murder laws in the USA would not apply to The Elkhart 4
- Did Sunny Hostin Make a Big Mistake on Dr. Phil?
These are not boys, they are adults. Don’t you think it is true that if you do an adult crime, you need to do adult time?
At the time of the crime Blake was 16, Jose was 16 and Levi was 17. They were adolescents. Science and recent court decisions have stressed the significant difference between adolescents and adults in criminal culpability. In Indiana you can’t vote, join the military or marry without parental consent until you are 18. In Indiana you can’t drink alcohol until you are 21. Blake, Jose and Levi were not adults at the time of this crime! Northwestern Law Professor Steve Drizin covered the issue of juvenile justice in his article on the Elkhart 4 (click here). The issue of juvenile justice in this case is a major aspect of the appeals. You can read about this in our articles about the appeals. We also cover this in the following articles,
- Did Curtis Hill ignore the juvenile factor in the case of The Elkhart 4?
- How would Canada deal with The Elkhart 4?
Were there any other options or did the prosecution need to charge them with felony murder?
What charges are laid is the responsibility of Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill. Mr. Hill made the decision to charge these boys with felony murder. He could have gone with burglary and he could have taken into account the ages of The Elkhart 4 (especially Blake, Levi and Jose). He chose not to do that. Prosecutors have the power to decide how to proceed in criminal cases. Had Mr. Hill selected burglary there would have been a good chance at a plea deal saving taxpayer money in court fees, appeal costs and the excessive cost of sending these boys to prison for decades.
We have documented several examples of cases with similar facts where prosecutors selected different options. Specifically read our article,
I believe in “Do the crime, do the time.” Don’t you?
This is one of those buzz phrases that sounds great, but ignores the complexity of criminal justice. If “do the crime, do the time” effectively reduced crime then the USA would be the safest country in the world. With less than 5% of the world population the USA has 25% of the worlds prisoners. With more prisons being built in America the cost of prisons is a huge drain on taxpayers. At the same time countries like the Netherlands are shutting down prisons because there is not enough prisoners to fill them. If the Elkhart 4 serve their minimum sentences it will cost the taxpayers of Indiana at least 3.1 million dollars. There are exciting things going on in legal systems around the world. Programs that find alternatives to decades in prison and effectively reduce rates of re-offending. Locking these boys up for a crime they did not commit and never dreamed of doing is not productive. There is also another wonderful buzz phrase — ‘Let the punishment fit the crime’. In this case the punishment did not fit the crime.
For more information you can read our articles,
- It will cost taxpayers at least 3.1 million to send The Elkhart 4 to prison
- Curtis Hill just spent $2 500 000 of Indiana tax dollars on what?
- How would Canada deal with the Elkhart 4?
- Responding to our readers — a closer look at crime in Canada and the USA
I heard the Elkhart 4 had a gun. Is this true?
There was no gun!!! If the Elkhart 4 had a gun then it would have been central at the trial. A gun was not mentioned at all during the trial. Early in the confusion after the incident the press and some members of the police force did mention a gun, but it was quickly determined that a gun was not involved in the crime. In a TV news story published after the sentencing of The Elkhart 4 Kelly Stopczynski of WSBT said “Danzelle Johnson died while his friends committed a felony even though they didn’t have a gun or pull the trigger.” Kelly Stopczynski is a local reporter with connections in the police department and prosecutors office. Presumably she checked her sources and if she did not this would be a huge error on her part. Even the state in its brief to the appeals court did not mention a gun. – Source — http://www.wsbt.com/news/local/justice-served-a-closer-look-at-the-law-that-made-3-elkhart-county-teens-murderers/-/21046398/22106168/-/128ny9x/-/index.html
I heard The Elkhart 4 had knives. Is this true?
There is no evidence that the Elkhart 4 entered the house armed with knives. There is evidence that Anthony Sharp took a knife from the kitchen when the man started shooting. This comes from the brief filed in the appeals by the state in the appeals for Blake and Levi. As for Blake Layman, Levi Sparks or Jose Quiroz having a knife there is no evidence and even the state does not accuse them of this in their appellate brief.
Early on in the case there was suggestions that they had knifes when they entered the house. This is not true and the local media has supported that claim. Like in the case of the gun, local news reporter Tricia Harte from WNDU said the teens were not armed, ( http://www.wndu.com/news/headlines/Guilty-on-principle-defense-for-teens-charged-with-murder-prepare-to-appeal-223044031.html?ref=031 ).
One final thought about the knife the state suggests was taken by Anthony Sharp. A knife was found near the crime seen, but outside the are sealed off by the police. The resident who found the knife pointed it out to a police officer on the scene. The police officer thought the knife was unimportant and left it be. Later the police decided to have a look at the knife. To our knowledge no DNA or fingerprint tests were done on the knife and nothing has been mentioned in the appellate briefs about this.
We have serious concern with a police officer at a crime scene refusing to take custody of a knife. Even if that police officer does not think the knife is connected to the case being investigated do they not have an obligation to remove such an item from the streets? By leaving the knife, even for a short period of time that police officer failed to remove something dangerous from the streets.
Why were these boys not at school?
We think this is a really silly question. It does not matter why there were not at school. What matters is why they decided to do such a stupid thing. But for the record we have checked and know that at least two of the boys did not have classes that afternoon due to their schedule and early dismissal.
Where are the Elkhart 4 Now?
Currently Blake, Levi, Jose and Anthony are in prison. You can find you where they are by clicking here. From what we have been told they have the strong support of their families and a lot of the residents in the community.
We are going through the appeals process. Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp have all filed appeals. Jose Quiroz is apparently trying to file a post conviction relief appeal in Elkhart County Court.
The Elkhart 4 were featured on an episode of the Dr. Phil Show in January 2014. Smoke and Apple Films is currently completing a documentary on the juvenile justice system in The United States. This documentary will feature the case of The Elkhart 4. This start of the documentary was featured at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in the UK June 2013. To watch the movie trailer click here. Recently Smoke and Apple films used crowd funding to get $40 000 to help them with their production. In July 2014 the story of the Elkhart 4 was featured on ABC Nightline Prime.
In September 2014 the Indiana Court of Appeals issued a ruling. The ruling reduced the sentences of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp to be 45 years in prison with 10 years of probation. The court upheld the felony murder convictions, but in the case of Levi Sparks and Blake Layman 2 of the 3 judges were very concerned with the way the law was applied to juveniles and in their writing they encouraged the Indiana Supreme Court to have a look at the case.
In February 2015 the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments to see if they should listen to the appeal. We are currently awaiting the results of those arguments. Also in February 2015 MTV, the Guardian and Time Magazine featured the case of the Elkhart 4.
In September 2015 the felony murder convictions for Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp were vacated by the Indiana Supreme Court.
What can I do to help?
- Spread the word – tell your friends about this blog
- Sign the petitions set up by the families (click here) asking for a change in the law.
- Write the Governor of Indiana, local state representatives or Curtis Hill expressing your concern ( for contact information click here )
- Remember that this is one of many examples of juvenile issues being ignored. Get involved in your local community and ask what happens to youth in the justice system
- Be critical citizens. Read this blog, your newspapers, and websites with a critical eye. Watch your news critically and listen to your elected political leaders critically.
- Let us know your thoughts. Post a comment on the blog (please remember to read our comment guidelines, we will not post offensive comments, but we will post comments that disagree with our point of view).
- Remember there are two sides to every story. Do your research and listen to all viewpoints.