Elkhart Co. teens learn sentences for felony murder

It was a tearful day in court as the three teens convicted of murder in a fatal burglary last October appeared for sentencing.

Blake Layman, 17, received a 55 year sentence with mandated drug treatment and 344 days credit for time served in prison.

Levi Sparks, 18, was sentenced to 50 years, a mitigated sentence because he was not inside the home during the time of the burglary. Sparks also was fined $10,000, which was suspended. He received credit for time served.

Anthony Sharp Jr., 19, was sentenced to 55 years and given a $10,000 suspended fine and 345 days credit for time served, and recommended drug and alcohol treatment.

Layman, Sparks and Sharp were found guilty on Aug. 22 for the death of 21-year-old Danzele Johnson. The teens were among a group of five that broke into a home in the 1900 block of Frances Ave. in Elkhart last Oct. During the course of the break-in the homeowner fired his handgun and killed Johnson. The homeowner was later cleared of any wrongdoing in that fatal shooting.

Under Indiana’s felony murder statute if a person dies during the commission of a felony—in this case burglary. Those involved in perpetrating that crime are responsible for that death. The remaining four teens were charged with felony murder, but only three went to trial in August. The fourth, 17-year-old Jose Quiroz, pleaded guilty for a reduced sentenced in November.

After the week-long trial and less than five hours of deliberation, the jury ultimately found the teens guilty of felony murder.

The families have since expressed their desire to appeal the decision in hopes of either overturned verdicts or a new trial for a lesser charge.

Layman was the first teen called for sentencing. His attorney explained what he felt were “mitigating” circumstances: he worked at Wendy’s, went to alternative school after being expelled from Concord schools for fighting, he was quote an “asset” to his family who had a single bread-winner, his mom, and a younger sister battling cancer.

The defense and the judge in turn weighed those against the aggravating factors in this case. They cited Layman’s frequent use of marijuana and non-prescribed drugs like Xanex and Vicodin, as well as his suspension from high school in the ninth grade for fighting as evidence of bad behavior.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor, Vicki Becker, said there is a solution, “the solution is appreciating other people’s privacy…property…sanctity.” She acknowledged how the Layman family is suffering, but qualified that by saying it is because their child made “decisions to violate basic fundamental principles of right and wrong.”

“We’re here because Blake Layman made a conscious choice,” said the prosecution, “because he was selfish.”

At that point here was an outburst from the audience in the courtroom. This has been an emotional trial all along with dozens of friends and family sitting in the whole time. The judge issued a stern warning that any type of facial expression or outburst will not be tolerated and said he was quote “embarrassed.”

Blake Layman spoke for the first time. He offered an apology for the two victims of the burglary—not just Danzele Johnson, but the homeowner as well. He asked for forgiveness and said he accepts responsibility for his actions.

Considering all the factors, those presented by both sides, Layman’s statement and letters submitted to the court, Judge Shewmaker recognized the apology and one letter in particular that caught his attention.

“Blake needed us to be there for him,” the judge read from the letter, “however we didn’t see his outcry for help. As a family we should’ve been there for Blake to support and guide him and we have failed at this.” Given the circumstances, the facts of the case and case law the judge handed out a 55 year sentence with a $10,000 suspended fine, 344 days recommended drug treatment and credit for time served.

During Anthony Sharp's sentencing, Sharp's lawyer brought up that Sharp had dreams of becoming a marine -- trying to underscore the potential of the teens.

Prosecutor argued: though Sharp is young, he is an adult. He was the only other legal adult involved, Prosecutors pointed out that Danzele Johnson, arrived late and didn't stop the teens in their plans to burglarize the Feances Ave. home.

Sharp said in a statement before his sentencing, "The past 11 months, I've fought and cried myself to sleep because my best friend is dead and the state of Indiana is charging me with a death I didn't commit."

Sharp also apologized to homeowner Rodney Scott, to his family and friends, and to the families of all the other boys involved.

Sharp says he plans to appeal his sentence.

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