By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — Angie Johnson summed up what she felt had happened.
“Injustice,” she said early Thursday afternoon outside the courthouse in downtown Goshen.
Johnson is the mother of 17-year-old Blake Layman of Elkhart. Earlier that day, Judge Terry Shewmaker sentenced her son to 55 years in prison on a felony murder charge.
Layman was one of three people sentenced Thursday in connection to a burglary that turned deadly last year in Elkhart.
Co-defendant Anthony Perez Sharp Jr., 19, Goshen, was also sentenced to 55 years in the Department of Correction. Levi Sparks, 18, Elkhart, was sentenced to 50 years.
All three young men said they plan to appeal.
“The fight is on,” Johnson said after the sentencings. “That’s really where we’re at.”
Layman and Sharp, along with Jose Quiroz, now 17, Elkhart, and Danzele Johnson of Goshen, broke into the home of Rodney Scott, 1919 Frances Ave., Elkhart, on Oct. 3, 2012. Quiroz and Sparks lived across the street from Scott. Sparks reportedly waited on the porch at his home as a lookout.
Defense attorneys argued that the intruders believed no one was home at the time of the burglary. However, Scott heard the noise of the break-in and came downstairs armed with a .9mm handgun. He fired several rounds at the intruders. Johnson, 21, was killed. Layman was wounded in the leg.
Prosecutors charged the intruders with felony murder. Under Indiana law, if someone dies during the commission of certain felonies, those who were engaged in the underlying felony can be charged in the person’s death. Burglary is one of the included offenses.
Last year, Quiroz entered a plea deal with Elkhart County prosecutors. He received a 45-year sentence to the Department of Correction, plus 10 years on probation.
Last month, Layman, Sharp and Sparks were convicted at the end of a four-day jury trial in Circuit Court. On the trial’s last day, defense and prosecuting attorneys gave jurors the option of considering a lesser charge of burglary. However, the jury found all three defendants guilty of felony murder.
A harsh law?
Layman’s attorney, Mark Doty, said his client is remorseful of the crime he committed — burglary. The lawyer said “calamity ensued” during the burglary in a way the defendants didn’t intend or foresee.
Doty also took issue with the decision to charge the three with felony murder.
“I truly in my heart believe a law was applied particularly harshly in this case, and it didn’t need to be,” he said, later adding, “There is youth being crushed here.”
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vickie Becker acknowledged the defendants’ families are suffering. However, she indicated that suffering stems from the choices the defendants made.
Becker said the burglary was Layman’s idea, prompting outbursts in the audience section. At this, Shewmaker sternly told audience members to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Given the opportunity to make a statement, Layman apologized to the man whose home was targeted.
“I hope Rodney Scott can find it in his heart to forgive me for my wrongdoing,” he said.
Layman said he had no excuse, and was in court to take responsibility. He also apologized to Danzele Johnson’s family for the loss of “their son, my friend.”
Sparks’ attorney, Vincent Campiti, said his client was remote from Johnson’s death.
“He was not there,” Campiti said. “He did not enter the house.”
Sparks didn’t make a statement during his sentencing. Campiti said his client does not and will not accept responsibility for felony murder.
Campiti suggested that under the law, the jury had to go down the path of felony murder once they’d arrived at a guilty verdict on burglary. He also questioned what would have happened if Johnson had only been wounded. His death was key to Class B felony burglary becoming Class A felony murder, according to Campiti.
Becker pointed out that Sparks, knowing the burglary plan, did nothing to stop the intruders. “We choose our friends,” she said. “...We choose what behavior we’re going to condone.”
In handing down a relatively lighter sentence for Sparks, Judge Shewmaker said the defendant didn’t enter Scott’s home during the initial break-in.
‘That was his hope’
Sharp made several apologies in court Thursday, including to his family, Rodney Scott and Danzele Johnson’s family.
“For the last 11 months of my life, and for the rest of my life, Danzele Johnson has been taken away from me and his loved ones,” Sharp said. “...My best friend Danzele Johnson will remain in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Sharp also said he was being charged for a killing he didn’t commit. And his defense attorney, Jeff Majerek, said the case keeps him up at night.
“He wanted to be a Marine,” Majerek said of his client. “That was his hope.”
Becker alleged it was Sharp who armed himself with a knife from Scott’s kitchen during the break-in. That knife was later found outside in the neighborhood, presumably discarded by a fleeing intruder.
Sharp was the second-oldest in the group next to Johnson; he was 18 at the time of the crime. Shewmaker indicated he should have provided more adult guidance.
“Why didn’t you tell them, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” the judge asked, and tell them not to commit a burglary.
“I can’t control another human being,” Sharp responded.
During court proceedings, Shewmaker said co-conspirators are responsible for each other’s acts. He also cited legal precedent regarding felony murder.
“There’s nothing novel or new about the application of the law to the facts,” he said during Sharp’s sentencing.
Both Shewmaker and Becker discussed the impact of the break-in and shooting on Scott.
“(Scott) testified that he felt threatened,” the prosecutor said.
After Johnson’s death, Scott left his home at 1919 Frances Ave. He’d lived there 18 years.
“He can no longer stay there because it was just too much for him,” Judge Shewmaker said.
During the August trial, Deputy Prosecutor Peter Britton said that but for the actions of the five people involved in the break-in, including the three on trial, Danzele Johnson would still be alive. Becker sounded the same theme Thursday.
“Danzele is dead because of all of them,” she said. “All of them.”
Shewmaker gave the defendants credit for time they’ve already spent incarcerated — 339 days for Sparks, 345 days for Sharp and 344 for Layman.