Indiana’s felony murder statute allows participants in some felonies to be convicted of murder if anyone is murdered as the felony is being carried out. That’s the law that led to the conviction of Blake Layman (16), Jose Quiroz (16) and Levi Sparks (17) and Anthony Sharp (18).
The three, along with 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, had broken into a house in October 2012 in Elkhart, Ind., a Northern Indiana city located 15 miles east of South Bend. Although the burglars believed the house to be vacant, the homeowner was inside and ultimately shot and killed Danzele Johnson. Blake Layman was also shot, although he survived his injuries.
All of the young thieves were unarmed.
Those accompanying Johnson, the “Elkhart Four,” as they are now known, have been convicted of their friend’s murder and sentenced to harsh prison terms. Layman and Sharp were sentenced to 55 years in prison. Sparks, who never actually entered the house, received the slightly-reduced sentence of 50 years. Quiroz received 45 years after pleading guilty to the charges.
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In a new op-ed posted on the Huffington Post, Northwestern University Law Professor Steve Drizin argues that the law that led to the conviction of the Elkhart Four should be revised. Drizin points to a report by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which claims that “approximately 26 percent of the 2,500 juveniles in the U.S. sentenced to life without parole received these sentences based on felony murder conviction.”
According to Drizin’s viewpoint, children and young adults are being unjustifiably punished with long prison sentences for crimes that they either did carry out or did not intend to happen.
Many others agree that the conviction of the Elkhart Four was too harsh, especially considering the teenagers were unarmed and did not carry out a murder. There’s even a website — FreeTheElkhart4.com — dedicated to the cause.
That website points to a strikingly similar case that took place in Davenport, Florida, which also has legislation linking felonies and murder charges. Until these laws are changed in order to punish the suspects for the crimes that they actually committed, teens may be continued to be convicted of tragically long prison sentences.