A recent criminal case out of the County to our East has attracted national attention:
In October 2012, 16-year-olds Blake Layman and Jose Quiroz, 17-year-old Levi Sparks, 18-year-old Anthony Sharp, and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson broke into a house in Elkhart, Ind. The five were not armed and thought the house was vacant. Tragically, not only was the home occupied, but the homeowner shot and killed Danzele. Though not his killer, the four surviving teens were charged with Danzele’s murder.
Last month, three of the teens were convicted of murder and sentenced to harsh prison terms. Blake Layman, who suffered a gunshot wound himself, was sentenced to 55 years in prison, as was Anthony Sharp. Because Levi Sparks never even entered the house, he received a slightly shorter sentence, but will still be in prison for half a century. The fourth teen, Jose Quiroz, pleaded guilty to the charges in order to receive a “reduced” sentence of 45 years. To many, this result is unthinkable: Unarmed teens decide to break into what they believe to be a vacant house, watch their friend get shot and killed by the homeowner, and now must spend the majority of their adult lives in prison for their friend’s murder.
The sentencing hearing in this case sounds like it went very typically:
Layman was the first teen called for sentencing. His attorney explained what he felt were “mitigating” circumstances: he worked at Wendy’s, went to alternative school after being expelled from Concord schools for fighting, he was quote an “asset” to his family who had a single bread-winner, his mom, and a younger sister battling cancer.
The defense and the judge [Shewmaker] in turn weighed those against the aggravating factors in this case. They cited Layman’s frequent use of marijuana and non-prescribed drugs like Xanex and Vicodin, as well as his suspension from high school in the ninth grade for fighting as evidence of bad behavior.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor, Vicki Becker, said there is a solution, “the solution is appreciating other people’s privacy…property…sanctity.” She acknowledged how the Layman family is suffering, but qualified that by saying it is because their child made “decisions to violate basic fundamental principles of right and wrong.”
“We’re here because Blake Layman made a conscious choice,” said the prosecution, “because he was selfish.”
At that point here was an outburst from the audience in the courtroom. This has been an emotional trial all along with dozens of friends and family sitting in the whole time. The judge issued a stern warning that any type of facial expression or outburst will not be tolerated and said he was quote “embarrassed.”
Blake Layman spoke for the first time. He offered an apology for the two victims of the burglary—not just Danzele Johnson, but the homeowner as well. He asked for forgiveness and said he accepts responsibility for his actions.
Considering all the factors, those presented by both sides, Layman’s statement and letters submitted to the court, Judge Shewmaker recognized the apology and one letter in particular that caught his attention.
“Blake needed us to be there for him,” the judge read from the letter, “however we didn’t see his outcry for help. As a family we should’ve been there for Blake to support and guide him and we have failed at this.” Given the circumstances, the facts of the case and case law the judge handed out a 55 year sentence with a $10,000 suspended fine, 344 days recommended drug treatment and credit for time served.
The testimony of the homeowner at trial was interesting:
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.” . . .
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.
Scott, of course, was not charged with any crime. His testimony reminded me of the facts in the case of Tyrus Coleman, who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 45 years for attempted murder in the very same courtroom a couple years earlier. In Coleman’s case, there was no question that the “serious violent felon” who suddenly appeared on his property and immediately marched up to within “close range” of him was armed. Nevertheless, Coleman was to blame, according to the Indiana Supreme Court, because, “although Coleman had the opportunity to do so, he never used his cell phone to contact the police and inform them that two armed and dangerous men were on his property.”
Comparing these two cases reminds me of something a local judge said to a local newspaper back in 2006:
Q: Are you aware of the perception some people have that St. Joseph County judges are too lenient, and more lenient than in Elkhart County?
A: We’re in the top third. Does that say something about St. Joe County or does it say that something is out of whack in Elkhart County? If we would be in the bottom half or the bottom third, I would think you could make a statement then that our sentences are lenient in St. Joe County. That’s interesting because I actually thought that we would be ranked lower than that. I am not surprised that Elkhart is high on the list.
I have the sense in Elkhart that quite honestly, historically, the prosecutor runs the county. I think any defense lawyer will tell you that in Elkhart County, the prosecutor gets what the prosecutor wants.
(Marnocha said that might be because every judge in Elkhart was a career deputy prosecutor before taking the bench.)
Q: What do you think about the fact that St. Joseph Superior Judge Jerome Frese’s average sentences for most types of felonies were lower than Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker’s?
A: (Having known Shewmaker since the days when both were chief deputy prosecutors in their respective counties, Marnocha said he was not surprised that Shewmaker is handing out longer sentences.)
. . .
The jury selection in the case of the four teenagers was also significant:
Under Indiana Law if a death happens while a crime is being committed anyone involved can be charged with murder. It’s a law many of the potential jurors struggled with, causing the selection process to go on well into the evening. . . .
During questioning, many potential jurors confessed to not understanding the law, or not agreeing with it. All things that made them question their ability to judge fairly [sic].
If Indiana honored its own Constitution, those many potential jurors who did not agree with the felony murder law, or who would not commit to blindly following it, could not have been struck for cause, and the travesty of justice ultimately committed in this case would not have been foreordained.