The murder trial for three Elkhart County teens started Monday morning with a prolonged jury selection process that filled only 3 juror seats by 6:00 p.m.
Blake Layman, 17, Levi Sparks, 18, Anthony Sharp Jr., 19, and Jose Quiroz, 17 are accused of breaking into a Frances St. home last October. The homeowner, 54-year-old Rodney Scott was inside at the time and grabbed a pistol and cell phone when he heard three loud bangs coming from downstairs. Scott fired several shots when he was confronted by four teens in his kitchen, killing 21-year-old Danzele Johnson and injuring Layman.
Prosecutors cleared Scott of any wrongdoing regarding Johnson’s death, and due to Indiana Felony Murder statutes, the remaining four teens are liable for the death. Quiroz pleaded guilty back in November and accepted 45 years in prison and 10 years’ probation, while the rest are going to trial.
In the ten months since the break-in there has been extensive media coverage; out of the first 12 prospective jurors nine answered that they had heard about the case in the media prior to jury duty. One individual even mentioned he anticipated having been called for this particular trial when he found out the date.
Judge Shewmaker began the procedures by sharing preliminary discussion from chambers, noting that the trial is expected to run three to four days—possibly longer. The three defendants face up to 65 year sentences if they are found guilty of felony murder under Indiana Code 53-42-1-1 (2).
The State, represented by Vicki Becker, Chief Deputy Prosecutor, and Peter Britton, Deputy Prosecutor, focused their opening statements and juror addresses on laying out the provisions of felony murder and making sure each individual understood the law.
Britton made an emotional opening remark explaining the happenings of the day of the break in, explaining how Scott was awaking from a nap at around 2:30 p.m. when he heard “not one, not two, but three loud bangs that shook his house.” According to Britton, the loud bangs were part of a five person plan to break into the house, take Scott’s things and leave one person as look out. Scott grabbed his cell phone and “had a second thought,” said Britton, and grabbed his pistol. The result of the crime said Britton, was that Scott found himself confronted by four intruders, fired in self-defense, and wound up killing Johnson.
From the prosecution’s standpoint, under Indiana law and accessory liability, the teens can be charged be felony murder and held responsible for the death.
Layman’s defense attorney, Mark Doty, reserved his statements until crossing the jury pool, leaving court appointed Jeff Majerek, representing Sharp, to go next.
Majerek took time to explain that the defense is not required to give an opening statement, and that all three defendants are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty—emphasizing to the jury pool of 75 that they should ignore what they’ve heard thus far and act as clean slates.
Up third was Vicent Campiti, representing Levi Sparks. Campiti took a slightly different angle in his statement, focusing uniquely on his client. Campiti explained to the courtroom that at the time of the incident Sparks was only 17 years-old and never stepped foot inside the home. He then pointed to the testimony of Jose Quiroz during his plea deal: noting how during the first testimony Quiroz did not mention Sparks’ involvement, then mentioned him “a little” in his second testimony, and only after his plea-agreement did he go into detail about Sparks’ involvement. According to Campiti, Quiroz’s changing statements would draw questions about his credibility.
“You’ll hear a cell phone was left behind,” said Campiti, “my client never called anybody, never made any phone calls.” Comparing the situation on Frances Street to a movie where lookouts typically call and warn their accomplices, Campiti stated that the absence of a phone call may indicate his client’s lack of culpability in the crime.
At around 9:55 a.m. formal jury selection began.
Prosecution took the first, and prolonged, round talking to the potential jurors. Becker asked each person whether they thought felony murder was “fair,” evoking responses ranging from yes to definitive “no’s.”
Several jurors said they would not create a law like felony murder, but acquiesced that they would try to put aside emotions and fairly apply the law. Others openly admitted they either didn’t want to be on the jury or would be too biased.
After two recesses the defense took turns talking to the jury pool, highlighting different aspects of felony murder charges like “reasonable foreseeability.” Doty explained how, in his view, cases where someone commits a homicide during a felony there has to be some foreseeability that death could be a consequence.
For hours each defense attorney went through, highlighting different aspects of the law and noting how no testimony or evidence had been made just yet.
Rodney Scott, Jose Quiroz, several police officers and other references are scheduled to appear as witnesses in the case. However, no witnesses will take the stand until the arduous process of selecting an unbiased jury is completed.
As for the audience, family and friends of the teens were out in full support. Layman’s mother, Angie Johnson said she felt “a little better,” after hearing some of the defense’s statements.
“There was no foreseeability, these kids didn’t see anything like this happening and I think in the felony murder rule that’s a very important point that the attorney pointed out today and I agree. I agree these kids had no idea somebody was in their home let alone shoot one of their friends,” Johnson added.
For Johnson it was a nerve wracking day, saying at the halfway point, “this is going to be a long trial.”