By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — A key witness in the felony murder trial of three young men said Wednesday he’d lied during earlier testimony.
Jose Quiroz, 17, formerly of Elkhart, also said he’d been pressured to take a plea deal in the case by prosecuting and defense attorneys. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vicki Becker disputed that claim, and Quiroz’s former lawyer defended his conduct under oath.
Anthony Perez Sharp Jr., 19, Goshen, Blake Layman, 17, Elkhart, and Levi Sparks, 18, Elkhart, are being tried in Elkhart Circuit Court. The charges stem from a botched burglary on Elkhart’s south side Oct. 3, 2012.
Prosecutors allege that Layman, Sharp, Quiroz and Danzele Johnson broke into the home of Rodney Scott at 1919 Frances Ave. Sparks allegedly waited outside as a lookout.
Scott, awakened by the noise of the break-in, fired several shots from a .9mm handgun at the intruders. Johnson, 21, Goshen, was killed. Layman was wounded in the leg.
Prosecutors charged the alleged intruders with felony murder. Under Indiana law, if someone dies during the commission of a felony, those who were engaged in the underlying felony can be charged in the person’s death.
Late 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.
In court Wednesday, Quiroz said information he offered during his guilty plea was false. That testimony implicated all the defendants now on trial.
‘I don’t recall’
Quiroz indicated he’d said what attorneys wanted to hear. According to his testimony, he was fearful of receiving an enhanced prison sentence of more than 100 years. With benefit of the plea deal and good-time credit, the teen could be out of prison in 22 years or less.
Quiroz said Wednesday that he, Layman and Johnson entered the Scott home Oct. 3. He testified that Sharp wasn’t with him, and Sparks didn’t assist him.
Not recalling prior statements or events was a recurring theme in Quiroz’s testimony Wednesday. There was a key exception.
“The only thing I recall is Dan — Danzele Johnson — dying in my arms,” he said. Quiroz also said he remembered running from police.
Becker pointed out that Johnson died in Scott’s home. She asked Quiroz if that meant he was in the residence, too.
“Evidently, ma’am, yes,” he replied.
Becker also quizzed Quiroz about his November plea hearing in Circuit Court. She questioned Quiroz as to whether Judge Terry Shewmaker asked if he’d been threatened or coerced into the plea. Becker also asked Quiroz whether he provided facts about the crime during that hearing.
“I don’t recall,” the defendant replied to both queries.
Quiroz was also questioned by defense lawyers Jeff Majerek, Mark Doty and Vincent Campiti. He testified that he felt pressured by Becker and public defender Peter Todd.
“Were you fearful of receiving a much higher sentence?,” Doty asked. Yes, Quiroz said.
Under questioning by Campiti, Quiroz indicated he’d lied throughout the entire legal process.
“There was no conspiracy, was there?,” Campiti asked Quiroz, referring to the Oct. 3 break-in and the defendants.
Campiti also said that after the plea hearing, Quiroz wrote a letter to the court indicating he’d felt threatened. And on the day of his sentencing, Campiti said, Quiroz wanted to withdraw his guilty plea.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Todd testified that as a defense attorney, he’s bound by certain ethical standards. If he doesn’t follow them, he faces the revocation of his law license.
“I never threaten any of my clients,” he said. “...I never even tell my clients what to do.”
Todd indicated he outlines the range of potential legal outcomes for his clients. He said he told Quiroz there was a possibility he could face more than a maximum 65-year prison term via a criminal gang sentence enhancement.
“(Quiroz) didn’t want to go to trial,” Todd said. The attorney said he told Quiroz his only real option was to take a plea deal because it was unlikely prosecutors were going to dismiss the case.
Questioned by Becker, Todd said she hadn’t threatened Quiroz, and that neither of them told Quiroz what to say.
Portions of the transcript of Quiroz’s November plea hearing were read in court Wednesday. Quiroz testified then that before the break-in at Scott’s house, Sparks knocked on doors at a couple of different homes. There were dogs at one residence, Quiroz testified, and somebody home at another.
Quiroz said in November that he, Layman, Sharp and Johnson entered the Scott home. While they were inside, he said, someone started shooting.
“Do you understand that had you not engaged in burglary, Danzele would not be dead?” Becker asked at the prior hearing.
Yes, Quiroz had replied.