Emotions erupted inside and outside Elkhart County Circuit Court on August 23 when three teens were found guilty of felony murder. Now that those emotions have cooled, the families and legal representation for the defendants are preparing to appeal.
Levi Sparks, 18, Blake Layman, 17, and Anthony Sharp Jr., 19, were among a group of five that broke into a home on Frances Ave. last October. During the course of that break-in the homeowner—who was asleep upstairs—found the teens and fired his handgun to protect his house. As a result, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson was shot and killed and Layman was shot in the thigh.
The remaining four teens were charged with Johnson’s death, one pleaded guilty in the fall and the rest went to trial this summer.
It took five days of trial and less than five hours of deliberation for a jury to find the three teens guilty. Sentencing for the felony murder convictions is scheduled for Sept. 13, but it’s not the end of the road for this case.
“We were not expected felony murder,” said Layman’s great aunt, Tammy Adams, “we were shocked, and we're not gonna give up, we don't think these boys should be looking at 45 to 65 years in prison.”
Vincent Campiti represents one of the defendants, Levi Sparks, and says Indiana’s felony murder law requires a judgment call: “We can do it, but should we do it?”
Campiti thinks prosecutors shouldn’t have applied the statute; he said that burglary is a more appropriate charge for the circumstances.
“Unfortunately the jury was put in the position that if they don’t follow through on this then they’re a bunch of cowards,” argued Campiti, “if you find them guilty, which they did, they become pawns in a game of “reasonableness” because I believe this case was tried on principle and I don’t think that was the right way to go.”
Going forward with an appeal, Campiti argues that this case doesn’t evenly match of with other scenarios involving felony murder at the appellate level. Those cases, he said, usually involve armed individuals. If Johnson had not died as a result of the gunshot, Campiti argues the teens would only have faced Class A felony burglary with lesser sentences.
But it’s the fatal component which has Elkhart County prosecutor, Curtis Hill, holding firm to the jury’s verdict.
“This law has been in place for quite some time,” said Hill. He said holding someone responsible for the ripple-effect of their actions is nothing new in the law, “in terms of fairness this law was here, I determined the law was applicable and made the appropriate charge” Hill added.
What some people may have forgotten when looking back on this case is that 12 jurors ultimately made the determination about guilt.
The “bottom line” according to Hill, is that Indiana’s law is clear—as is its application to the facts of this case: the defendants burgled a home, during the course of that crime someone died, therefore those committing the burglary can be held accountable.
For Hill it isn’t about making an “example” of the three teens, instead he claimed they made an example of themselves.
“The decision was when these five individuals decided they were going to burgle a home and made a series of bad calls. That series of bad calls left one of them dead, and left the other four facing some serious jail time. So when you're looking at what got this started it comes from decisions from those individuals,” Hill added.
The way the appellate courts have construed the statute is that the perpetrators don’t have to physically pull the trigger in order to be charged with murder. In this instance, Campiti claims Johnson entered the home out of his own free will and out of his own actions—the question is whether the other teens should pay for Johnson’s choice to break in.
But according to prosecutors burglary—like any felony—is a serious crime that warrants significant repercussions. On Thursday, the three defendants face 45 year minimum sentences for felony murder.