Indiana felony murder: What cases still hang in the balance?

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Prosecutors have applied Indiana's felony murder statute to specific crimes resulting in death, including kidnapping, robbery and burglary. But will the Indiana Supreme Court's recent reversal of a high-profile felony murder conviction change the game for past and future cases?

Last month, Indiana Supreme Court justices threw out the felony murder convictions for three of the so-called "Elkhart Four": Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp Jr. Instead of decades behind bars, the justices instructed that the young men be re-sentenced for burglary, a charge which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.

The prosecutor behind the initial felony murder charge, Curtis Hill, along with Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller petitioned the court to re-hear this case and re-examine the evidence and the new precedent it established in its decision.

When the Elkhart Four were charged with felony murder in the fall of 2012, family and friends cried out for public support. They condemned Hill for making an example of these teenagers and fought the convictions all the way up to the state's highest court.

But Hill doesn't shirk responsibility. Since taking office as Elkhart County Prosecutor in 2003, he's asked for extensive sentences for criminal activity in the hopes that it would deter violent and dangerous behavior.

"We don't sit here in this office and relish the idea that we lock people up for a long period of time. But we do lock people up for long periods of time because it's our main focus to keep this community safe," said Hill.

Roughly two years after the Elkhart Four broke into their neighbor's home, and one year after those teens were sentenced to over five decades in prison, a similar crime occurred in nearby Dunlap. Three teenagers entered a home on Falcon Court, got into an altercation with at least one person inside, and one of the intruders was fatally shot.

Freddie Rhodes and Deante Dalton were 18 and 16 at the time of their arrests, and both were charged with felony murder for the death of their friend, DreTarrius Rodgers.

"I never thought that I would be in this place at this moment, fighting for my son's life," said Wanda Malone-Shorter, Rhodes' mother, "but I am."

According to court records, Rodgers, Rhodes and Dalton went to the home with the intention of robbing Norman Gary, 27. During a struggle, a handgun went off and Rodgers was shot four times. He was found at the bottom of the staircase, while Rhodes and Dalton had already left the scene.

"I knew that Freddie would be convicted. But I just kept the hope and the faith," Malone-Shorter says. She hoped the jury would go easy on her son with so many conflicting testimonies during the trial about what went on inside the house that night. She maintains that her son and Dalton were already out of the house, leaving the situation, before anyone was shot.

"I am very angry at Freddie that he allowed himself to get into this situation. I'm not proud of that and neither is Freddie. Freddie was raised better than that, so I'm not going to sit here and act like Freddie is an angel, because Freddie had a part to play, but he didn't murder anyone," Malone-Shorter explains, saying she asks that he be charged with a crime he committed.

Before her son was even arrested, before he went into the house on Falcon Court, Malone-Shorter said she was well-versed in the felony murder law. For some reason, she said, she closely followed the Elkhart Four's case in the previous years.

When the Indiana Supreme Court threw out Layman, Sparks and Sharp's felony murder convictions in September 2015, Malone-Shorter saw a glimmer of hope for her own son.

"It gave me a lot of hope, because during Freddie's trial and through the sentence, the judge referenced the Elkhart Four." Malone-Shorter hopes her son's murder conviction could also be thrown out during appeal because he wasn't armed when he went into the home.

Rhodes' situation and the Elkhart Four's are similar, but no two crimes are identical. In the case of the Elkhart Four, five young men were involved in a burglary. Four went over and surprised a sleeping homeowner and two were shot. While the young men maintain they were never armed, prosecutors discovered a kitchen knife in an alleyway that was taken from the homeowner's house.

In Rhodes' and Dalton's case, three men went into a house knowing at least one person would be there. According to testimony during trial, at least one of the intruders had a weapon, but the details as to what transpired were unclear. At some point Dalton and Rhodes left the scene, gunshots were fired, Norman Gary was shot and wounded and DreTarrius Rodgers was shot and ended up at the bottom of a staircase.

The Indiana Supreme Court determined Layman, Sparks, and Sharp weren't acting in an obviously dangerous or threatening manner once inside the home to incite the "mediate or immediate" death of their friend. Because the appeals process is still in its early stages for Rhodes, it's unclear whether that precedent will apply.

Malone-Shorter promised her son that she'd fight this until the end, and with an appeal in the works, she plans to make good on that promise. Her main goal is to influence change in the law so that it's clearer as to when a co-defendant can be held liable for deaths during a crime.

Meanwhile, Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill doesn't foresee changing the way he applies the law, arguing that the letter of the law is clear enough.

"Comparing different cases is very difficult to do, to say this situation is worse than that situation. Which is precisely why we have to stick to a basic standard that if it qualifies as an inherently dangerous act or inherently dangerous felony crime and someone dies as a result, then it qualifies as felony murder," said Hill.

St. Joseph County has seen fewer instances where a participant in a felony crime dies. However, Ken Cotter said in an interview that he doesn't see much confusion in the statute's writing.

"In any case there’s always prosecutorial discretion. That’s what our legislature allows prosecutors to do: decide whether to allow a charge, and if so, what charge. For felony murder, it was fairly straight forward: if a person committed one of those eight underlying felonies and someone died during the course of that, then felony murder can apply. The Supreme Court has kind of modified that understanding that we as prosecutors have always had to require that there would be some foreseeability on the part of defendants," said Cotter.

Cotter cannot comment on pending litigation, but three South Bend men were charged with felony murder in 2013 after a violent home invasion ended in a deadly gun battle. Mario McGrew, Shawn Alexander, Deandre Moore and Michael Jackson were connected to an October 2013 home invasion during which Jackson was shot and killed.

Two of the men went into the home and held the resident and two women at gunpoint. The man inside the house, Robert Carrico, also had a weapon and started shooting. Both the resident and Jackson were shot, and Jackson died at the scene.

The legal future is still unclear for the three surviving men; no plea deals have been made or jury trials set.

They're three different cases arising in two years in two relatively small communities, and what connects them is a statute that holds them all responsible for the consequences of the initial felony, no matter what they intended when they set off to commit the offense.