Goshen, Ind. Three Elkhart County teens have been convicted of felony murder for their roles in a botched home invasion last year that resulted in their friend's death.
The jury deciding the fate of Blake Layman, 17, Levi Sparks, 18, and Anthony Sharp, Jr., delivered the guilty verdict just before midnight Friday, after deliberating for more than five hours.
Emotions ran high after the verdict was read.
"I wish there would have been a different outcome because they did not commit a murder, they did not pull that trigger," said family friend Jennifer Szabo. "That man, nothing makes sense in his statements, nothing makes sense at all. He pulled that trigger over and over again and he didn't need to. He should be the one in trouble, not them." She's talking about the homeowner, Rodney Scott, who testified earlier in the day about his recollections of the burglary.
"It's certainly a verdict I think is appropriate," said Elkhart County prosecutor Curtis Hill. "When we filed the charges we thought that it was appropriate. When someone commits a felony, and someone dies as a result, Indiana law is very clear."
The three teens were among a group of five people that broke into a Frances Ave. home last October. Jose Quiroz, 17, already pleaded guilty to felony murder for his part in the crime. The burglary ended when the homeowner shot and killed the fifth member of the group, Danzele Johnson, 21. While the teens didn't pull the trigger, under Indiana law, their involvement in the burglary makes them responsible for Johnson's death.
Testimony continued Thursday in the teens' trial when homeowner Rodney Scott took the witness stand at approximately 10:15 a.m.
Scott started his testimony by describing the layout of his two-story home on Frances Ave., a home he lived in alone for 18 years. From the wood floors, narrow living room and set of double doors in the rear and front of the house, Scott's testimony took jurors on a virtual walking tour.
Then the prosecution switched directions, asking him about how much time he spent inside his house. On the day of the burglary, Oct. 3, 2012, Scott said he was unemployed and had no anticipation of going to work.
His said day started at 6:00 a.m. when he woke up, "messed around the house" and watched the morning news for several hours before heading back to sleep at around 9:00 a.m.
Scott testified he has sleep Apnea and has to sleep with a mask over his face to keep him breathing during the night. That mask he said is attached to a small machine stored near his bed. But questioning about the machine revealed there was no loud noise that could've kept him from hearing someone at the door.
“You can’t hear no one at the front door because of the closed-in front porch,” Scott said.
Hours after falling back to sleep, at about 2:30 p.m., Scott stated he was wide awake and ready to get up, “As soon as I sat up at the side of the bed there was this boom and the whole house just shook.”
The first thought that popped into his head was “what in the world is that, what caused that?” Then, a second or two later it happened again, and he decided to head downstairs to find out what it is. But by the time he made it to his bedroom door he testified he heard a third loud "boom" again.
At that moment he said he recalled his next door neighbor’s house having just been broken into.
“I would say that I made me feel a little scared because I didn’t know the noise that I heard if that was going on in my house” he told the jury.
“I’m the type of person that if I hear a noise in my house I have to go find out what it is” he explained. The homeowner got his gun, loaded it, opened up his bedroom door to see if anyone out there and started downstairs.
Scott said he stepped down the first three steps, then ran down the remainder of the steps hoping that if there was someone inside they’d hear him and try to run out of the house. When he made it downstairs he remembered walking through the living room, scanning the home for intruders, and finding one in the kitchen running out the door and two more standing in the bedroom door.
“It was fear because when you see that many people in your house, that you didn't invite into your house. Fear comes over you. You don’t know if you're going to be hurt or you’re going to be killed," he explained.
Scott decided to fire his gun because he didn't know whether they were armed or whether they’d attack him. He began firing, hoping to trap them in the bedroom and hold them there until he could call police.
When asked why he didn't immediately he answered, “that was not my mindset.” He could not remember where he aimed his gun—it was the first time he ever fired it.
According to the homeowner, the door to the bedroom closet opened several times—each time he told the teens to stay inside. But then the body of Danzele Johnson collapse onto the ground and from inside the closet Quiroz said “he’s been shot.” So the homeowner—still on the phone with dispatchers—told them to call for an ambulance.
Within minutes police and ambulances were on-scene. When an officer came inside, the homeowner testified Quiroz ran out of the closet, knocked over a dresser and jumped through the window. Testimony backed up by several other witness accounts brought up during the trial.
The homeowner went onto explain how he surrendered himself from the house and was treated as a suspect initially, just as prior officer testimony stated, and began telling an account of what he found the next when he returned to his home.
“I noticed a knife was missing from my knife set, and I was missing my wallet,” said the homeowner. During concluding arguments the prosecution tied the knife found by the homeowner’s neighbor to the one missing from his knife block, and linked a wallet discovered by the homeowner in the closet with the wallet which had disappeared from his kitchen the day of the burglary.
But through it all, the homeowner still cannot sleep at night—troubled by the thought of having killed someone: “I feel horrible about that because I can’t understand how it happened,” adding, “it just bothers me.”
The defense took turns cross-examining Scott. Bringing to the jury’s attention the discrepancy between the number of bullets he remembers loading and firing from his gun and the actually number of clips the 9mm handheld.
But Scott held firm to his testimony, never changing or altering what he said prior. When asked whether any of the intruders had any weapons, he frankly responded “I didn’t see any weapons, no,” yet he fired shots thinking he could trap them in the spare bedroom.
“when they were in the closet you felt relieved?” asked the defense, “yeah,” answered Scott, “I was no more threat to them, and they were no threat to me.”
Once Scott left the stand the deputy prosecutor began his concluding statement. She summarized the different testimonies of the case, linking them to the gaps and statements made by the homeowner.
“What is he trying to protect his home from?” the prosecutor posed to the jury, “a plan from five people, three of which are on trial; a plan that all five concocted, all five executed, that all five are responsible for the reasonable, logical outcome that was Danzele’s death.”
The prosecution ended by showing jurors how and why felony murder fits the crime. “The crime of burglary does not result in the death of a human being. When people die, when a person’s conduct results in death, it is a whole different level of accountability,” stated the prosecutor. He went on to compare felony murder with the increased penalties for fatal drunk driving accidents: “when you get behind the wheel you had no intention of that outcome, but you know it’s a chance, it’s a risk, it’s a potential.”
The defense started its concluding statements with Anthony Sharp’s attorney. Once again he reiterated his disagreement with the homeowner’s statement that he fired his gun downward and brought out a chalkboard to explain how the Pythagorean theorem applies to projectiles.
The defender went on to explain how no testimony, other than Quiroz’s plea transcript, is able to link Sharp with the burglary. He admitted that yes, some burglary was committed that day, however he argued the state has been unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who was involved or that there was any foreseeability that I’d end in death.
Next up from the defense was Blake Layman’s attorney. He too focused on the foreseeability aspect of the law.
“Burglary is not an inherently violent offense,” argued the attorney, “rarely does a person die during the commission of a burglary. Rarely that should be factored in when you think about what is reasonably foreseeable.”
Up last was Levi Sparks’ attorney, possibly the most outspoken attorney during the case. He wrapped the final case up for his client and for the defense, hitting home that what occurred that day was not murder and not provable beyond doubt.
Finally, after hours in the courtroom the jury was instructed on deliberation procedures and sent to determine the fate of three teenage defendants.
Stay with NewsCenter 16 as we continue to provide you updates from the courtroom online and on air.