Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Elkhart Four - Misuse of the Felony Murder Statute?

The Elkhart Four.

In October 2012 in Indiana, friends Blake Layman, 16, Levi Sparks, 17, Anthony Sharp, 18, Jose Quiroz, 16 and 21-year old Danzele Johnson made a decision that would change their lives forever. At a loose end, the friends decided they would rob a house. After knocking on several doors in a bid to find an empty home, they found one they believed to be vacant. As the five entered the home they awoke the sleeping home owner, Rodney Scott, who jumped from his bed and grabbed his gun. Several shots were fired and sadly, Danzele Johnson was killed instantly and Blake Layman was injured. The four surviving teens were arrested and the decision was made to charge them as adults. Elkhart County prosecutor Curtis Hill also decided to charge the four boys with felony murder. This was despite the fact the teens did not kill anyone and had entered the home unarmed. 

The Indiana felony murder rule states that if a person dies during the performance of a felony, every person involved in that felony will be held responsible for first-degree murder. During the boys' trials the prosecutor was not required to prove there was an intention to commit murder, just the intention to commit the original crime - which in this case would of been the burglary. Although Jose Quiroz was originally offered a plea deal, this was revoked at the last minute and the judge sentenced him to 45 years in prison. Levi Sparks received 50 years - Anthony Sharp and Blake Layman each received 55 years. 

In my opinion, this is a case where the Felony Murder Rule has been abused. Neither of these boys killed Danzele Johnson, Rodney Scott did and he was not committing a felony. Also is it fair to try these boys as adults? The Felony Murder Rule assumes that when a person partakes in a felony, they understand the potential far-reaching consequences of their actions and accept someone could be killed. Is it fair to assume these teenage boys, who are still developing mentally and emotionally, could assess the potential risks associated with breaking into a person's home as well as an adult could? Teenagers and even young adults are still developing decision making skills and common sense. These boys were much more likely to have been focused on the short term gain associated with burglary, rather than considering any far-reaching negative consequences - because they are teenagers. It is not fair to assume that when these boys broke into Mr Scott's home, they were fully aware they would be responsible for any resulting death - especially that of an accomplice, their friend. 

I am not for one minute insinuating the Elkhart Four are completely innocent. They are most definitely guilty of burglary and therefore should be charged with their own individual actions relating to this offence as well as reduced culpability. As teenagers or young adolescents, their potential for rehabilitation should have also been considered. Handing down virtual life sentences for burglary and a murder none of the boys committed with their own hand is not simply not fair. 

There is also variability of the Felony Murder Statue among the states that choose to use and apply it. For example, had this crime taken place in New York, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Colorado or Washington, the defendants' ages and fact they were not armed and did not plan to commit a potential fatal deed would have been presented as a defence. Surely, at the very least, all States that have the felony murder Statute should follow the same procedure and all States should consider exempting juveniles from the Statute. 

There is no question that Danzele Johnson's death was an intervening event that none of the boys saw happening when they broke into that (apparently) empty house that day. None of the adolescents actually killed Johnson, so how is it fair that they are looking at spending most of their lives in prison?

                                 An Episode of Dr Phil Covering the Elkhart Four Case

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