The young men are looking for houses to burglarize, to make some quick money, and Frances Avenue is an ideal location. Most of the occupants are either at work or out shopping, leaving several unoccupied premises as likely targets.
Halfway along Frances Avenue the boys reach number 1919. Blake Layman knocks loudly on the front door several times and rings the bell. They agree that if anybody comes to the door, they will take off, but nobody answers and there is no barking dog, which probably means nobody is at home. They assume the property is vacant and decide this is the house they will enter.
Blake Layman, 16, kicks in a rear door to gain entrance to the property. Levi Sparks, 17, waits outside as a lookout. Three other members of the gang, Anthony Sharp, 18, Jose Quiroz, 16, and Denzele Johnson, 20, follow Layman into the house. They split up and begin searching through cupboards and drawers in the downstairs rooms for anything of value.
|1919, Frances Avenue, Elkhart, Indiana|
The boys are also unaware that Mister Scott has armed himself with a 9mm handgun.
The first shot rings out, hitting Denzele Johnson in the chest. He drops to the floor, bleeding heavily from his wound. A second and third shot echo around the room. A fourth shot hits Blake Layman in the left thigh while he's trying to drag the bloodied body of Denzele Johnson into a closet to escape the hail of gunshots that is descending upon them.
Anthony Sharp, separated from the other three in a rear room, escapes through a back window. Jose Quiroz scrambles to join Layman and Johnson inside the closet. At his trial, Blake Layman says, "I ran through the kitchen to the (first floor) bedroom and the first thing I heard was gunshots. I was shot entering the closet. I felt something warm and I came up with a handful of blood. That's when I realized I'd been shot in the leg."
"Denzele died between me and Jose," Layman says later. "We were both right there next to him. I remember screaming, "I'm sorry," to him just over and over again. It was a bad situation. I was sorry for it all."
Even while they are sheltering inside the closet two more shots are fired, both shots miss the boys and pass through the closet door and into the rear wall. Rodney Scott, the homeowner, has already called 911 and the police are only minutes away, in fact, the sound of sirens can be heard in the distance - so why is Mister Scott still firing blindly through a closet door?
Because he's terrified.
It is very easy to criticize the homeowner. But what does it feel like to wake up from a nap and realize a gang of burglars are ransacking your property?
At the trial, Rodney Scott, who had lived alone in the Frances Avenue property for more than ten years, describes what happened. "I was sitting on the side of the bed. There was this boom and the whole house just shook. I thought, what in the world is that, what caused that?"
A second or two later it happens again, and Mister Scott decides to head downstairs to find out what it is. He recalls that his neighbor's house had been broken into recently. "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 gets his gun, loads it and then opens his bedroom door to see if anyone is out there. There isn't, so he slowly walks down the first three steps and then runs down the rest. He says he hopes whoever is in the house will hear him and run away.
Rodney Scott then decides to fire his gun at the intruders because he doesn't know if they are armed or whether they are going to attack him. He begins firing randomly in all directions, hoping to corner them in the room until he can call the police. He says later that he could not remember where he aimed his gun. It was, apparently, the first time he had ever fired it. As he calls 911 on his cell phone, the closet door swings open to reveal the boys trapped in the closet. He tells them not to move. Still using his phone, he tells the police dispatcher to also send an ambulance as somebody has been shot.
Within minutes the emergency services arrive at the scene. Mister Scott is initially treated as a suspect in a homicide. As the story unfolds, no charges are brought against him. Elkhart County prosecutor, Curtis Hill, decides that the homeowner, despite firing a full clip at the intruders, acted reasonably and in self defense. He then files a burglary charge and a felony murder charge against each of the four boys. The prosecutor explains his actions by saying, "When somebody commits a felony, and someone dies as a result, Indiana law is very clear."
|Elkhart County courthouse.|
The felony murder statute in Indiana states, "A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit arson, burglary, child molesting, consumer product tampering, criminal deviant conduct, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, sexual trafficking of a minor or carjacking ... commits murder, a felony."
The four youths did not kill another human being while they were committing burglary. There was no premeditation, no intent to commit murder. In fact, it was the homeowner who had the gun and he was firing blindingly in all directions because he feared for his life. Rodney Scott killed Danzele Johnson, but he wasn't committing a felony at the time, which renders the felony murder statute worthless in this particular case.
|Blake Layman with his mother and Brother.|
The defense. "When they were in the closet you felt relieved?"
Mister Scott. "Yeah. I was no more threat to them, and they were no threat to me."
But Mister Scott fired two more shots even when, in his own words, "they were no threat to me."
Blake Layman was shot as he tried to shelter in the closet. Not only was he no threat to Mister Scott he was actually trying to get away. Every man has the right to defend his property, but at what point does defense turn into malicious offense.
Jose Quiroz, the boy sheltering inside the closet with Layman and Johnson, plea bargains and pleads guilty to felony murder. He receives 45-years in prison and ten-years probation. Not much of a bargain, I would suggest.
He is called by the prosecution to testify against his friends. Despite being asked a number of questions several times, he remains uncooperative. The only thing he says is that he was under the influence of drugs during the break-in and that it was him and not Blake Layman who kicked the door in. "I had no intention of hurting nobody."
Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp plead not guilty. The judge tells the jury that if they don't find the teens guilty of felony murder they do have the option of finding them guilty of burglary.
|L-R. Sparks, Layman and Sharp.|
Levi Sparks, is sentenced to 50-years, a mitigated sentence because he was not inside the house during the burglary. (How is he guilty of murder if he wasn't even there?) He is also fined $10,000, which is suspended.
Anthony Sharp receives a 55-year sentence and a suspended $10,000 fine. He is recommended for drug and alcohol treatment.
Blake Layman receives a 55-year sentence and a suspended $10,000 fine with a mandated drug treatment. With good behavior, he will serve 27-years with a release date in 2040. He will be 44-years-old when he's released.
Interestingly, one of the jurors later says he was 'uncomfortable' with the verdict, but felt pressured to find the boys guilty.
This is not the first time that felony murder charges have been brought against teenagers in the United States following a burglary. On September 21, 2010, four boys aged between 15 and 17 break into a home in Davenport, Florida. The homeowner shoots the 15-year-old in the stomach, killing him instantly. Two of the boys plea bargain and receive a sentence that keeps them in detention until their 21st birthdays, effectively a sentence of between 4 and 7 years.
The third boy, aged 16, who used a hammer to break into the house, is charged with first degree felony murder and faces a sentence of 50 years in the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida, a state known for its tough justice system and harsh sentencing, has no options for parole. However, in this particular case, the prosecutor and the judge realize it is a unique situation. The 16-year-old pleads guilty to second degree* felony murder and burglary and receives a 6-year sentence, which seems to make more sense than Elkhart County's sentencing policy.
|Tony Martin 1999|
On the night of August 20, 1999, two burglars break into a house in Norfolk, England. The homeowner, 55-year-old, Tony Martin, is woken by the noise of the break-in. As he stands at the top of the stairs he sees two shadowy figures in the hallway moving towards him. He fires down the stairs with his shotgun, killing one of the intruder instantly. The second burglar flees the house and is later arrested by police. He is convicted of burglary and receives a 3-year sentence.
Tony Martin is charged with murder. The jury at the trial are told that they have the option of returning a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder, if they think that Martin "did not intend to kill or cause serious bodily harm". However, the jurors find Martin guilty of murder by a 10 to 2 majority. He is sentenced to life imprisonment.
On appeal, the charge is dropped to manslaughter and the sentence reduced to 3-years.
Bearing in mind other states and other countries leniency, why does the Elkhart County prosecutor, Curtis Hill, want to see 17-year-old Blake Layman and his friends serve 55-year sentences, effectively ruining their lives?
The truth is that Blake Layman is no angel. He was expelled from one school for fighting and was involved with several types of drugs.
It is also fair to say that the Frances Avenue burglary probably wasn't the first time he'd broken into somebody's property. He doesn't have a police record, but that's only because he's never been caught.
He appeared on British televison recently in an ITV program called "Kids In Prison", a documentary about the Wabash Correctional facility. His attempt to garner sympathy from the viewers didn't work. Despite being baby-faced and quietly spoken, there is a brooding anger and a hint of violent intent lingering just below the surface. He is not what he appears to be.
|Elkhart County Prosecutor, Curtis Hill.|
Instead of making an example of Blake Layman and his friends by handing them 20-year sentences for burglary (all out in ten-years, aged 27 - lesson learned?) Curtis Hill hands down ludicrous 55-year sentences for felony murder, thereby turning common criminals into martyrs.
Blake Layman and his friends may be many undesirable things, but they are patently not murderers. "I committed a crime," says Layman, from his cell in the Wabash Correctional facility. "I committed a burglary, serious things did happen. A man, the homeowner, has to live through life with what he did. And Danzele's gone. His mom lost a son. I understand I committed a crime and it was wrong. Twenty years is the max for burglary and I'd be fine if they gave it to me."
And what about Rodney Scott, who was at home in Frances Avenue, just minding his own business? He has never spoken publicly about the incident and has declined all requests for interviews. He testified that he has suffered terrible nightmares since he was caught up in a situation not of his making.
And he never spent another night in the house he had lived in for the previous 18 years.
Blake Layman, Levi sparks, Anthony Sharp
Release date - August 22, 2040
*Second degree felony murder. The state of Florida differentiates the degree of culpability in felony murder based on who does the actual killing. When the person who does the killing is an accomplice, it is first degree felony murder with a 50-year sentence. When the person who does the killing is a victim or a bystander then those committing the crime are charged with second degree felony murder, which carries a much reduced sentence.
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Pictures and information courtesy of:
ITV television (UK) "kids in Prison"
Wabash Correctional Facility
Indiana Criminal Justice Institute