Felony murder: Why a teenager who didn’t kill anyone faces 55 years in jail
Blake Layman broke into a house unarmed. The homeowner opened fire, injuring him and killing a friend. But Indiana law means he is officially a murderer
Blake Layman made one very bad decision. He was 16, an unexceptional teenager growing up in a small Indiana town. He’d never been in trouble with the law, had a clean criminal record, had never owned or even held a gun.
That decision sparked a chain of events that would culminate with his arrest and trial for “felony murder”. The boy was unarmed, had pulled no trigger, killed no one. He was himself shot and injured in the incident while his friend standing beside him was also shot and killed. Yet Layman would go on to be found guilty by a jury of his peers and sentenced to 55 years in a maximum-security prison for a shooting that he did not carry out.
How Blake Layman got to be in the Kafkaesque position in which he now finds himself – facing the prospect of spending most of the rest of his life in a prison cell for a murder that he did not commit – is the subject on Thursday of a special hearing of the Indiana supreme court, the state’s highest judicial panel. How the judges respond to the case of what has become known as the “Elkhart Four” could have implications for the application of so-called “felony murder” laws in Indiana and states across the union.
It was about 2pm on 3 October 2012, and Layman was hanging out after school in his home town of Elkhart with a couple of buddies, Jose Quiroz, also 16, and Levi Sparks, 17. They smoked a little weed, got a little high, and had a moan with each other about how broke they were.
Layman looks back on that afternoon and wonders why did he do it? Why did he throw it all away? He was doing well at school, had an evening job at Wendy’s, had a girlfriend he liked, was preparing to take his driving test. “It felt to me like life was really coming together at that point,” he said.
Within minutes, all that promise vaporised in an act of teenaged madness. Someone noticed that the grey pickup truck belonging to Rodney Scott, the guy who lived across the street, wasn’t in its usual parking spot. The homeowner must be at work or away somewhere. The house, by extension, must be empty.
On the spur of the moment, Layman and his teenaged buddies came up with a plan to break into the house, grab a few things to sell and quit before Scott returned. It would be easy, a harm-free ruse to get hold of some spending money.
It all happened so fast. They called a couple of older friends from down the road, Danzele Johnson, 21, and Anthony Sharp, 18, to join them. They knocked as loudly as he could on Scott’s door and when there was no reply – confirmation in their minds that the house was vacant – they broke open the side door. Five minutes out from having had the original idea, four of them were in the house with Sparks keeping lookout outside.
They ran through the kitchen, Layman pocketing a wallet on the kitchen table without stopping to think why it would be left there if the house was empty. They had a look around the spare bedroom and then indicated to each other it was time to leave.
That’s when the shooting started. Layman heard the boom of a gun and scrambled to hide in the bedroom closet. Danzele Johnson fell into the closet beside him. When Layman looked down he saw Johnson’s shirt stained red with blood. Layman crouched down in terror, and noticed that he too had been shot and that blood was streaming down his right leg.
Rodney Scott was not, as the boys had assumed, out of the house. He had been asleep upstairs and when he heard the commotion of the break-in grabbed his handgun. Not knowing that the intruders were unarmed, he let off a couple of rounds that put a bullet through Layman’s leg and hit Johnson in the chest, killing him.
Layman replays those fateful minutes for the Guardian as he sits in a visitor’s room in Wabash Valley correctional facility, a maximum-security prison in the south-west of Indiana where he is serving his sentence. He is dressed in standard-issue khaki and grey, his hair cropped short in classic prison style.
He recalls that a couple of hours after his arrest, he was told by officials at the county jail in his home town of that he was being charged with “felony murder”. “I was shellshocked,” he told the Guardian. “Felony murder? That’s the first I’d heard of it. How could it be murder when I didn’t kill anyone?”
The charge was not a mistake. At the end of a four-day trial in September 2013 in which they were all judged as adults, Layman, Sharp and Sparks were found guilty of felony murder. (Quiroz pleaded guilty under a plea deal and was given 45 years.) Layman was dispatched to the prison, still aged 17, to begin his 55 years in a lock-up cell.
The legal anomaly at the heart of what has become known in criminal justice circles as the case of the “Elkhart 4” will be the subject on Thursday of a special hearing by the Indiana supreme court, the state’s highest legal panel. The judges have asked lawyers for Layman and for the prosecution to address that specific question: is it consistent with Indiana law that he and his friends who were all unarmed, who fired not a single shot, and who in fact were themselves fired upon, one fatally, by a third party – the homeowner Rodney Scott – could be put away for decades for murder?
The conundrum is not an arcane one. Some 46 states in the union have some form of felony murder rule on their statute books. Of those, 11 states unambiguously allow for individuals who commit a felony that ends in a death to be charged with murder even when they were the victims, rather than the agents, of the killing.
In Indiana the wording of the felony murder law is more nuanced than those of the other 11 states. It says that a “person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit … burglary … commits murder, a felony.”
Cara and Joel Wieneke, the legal duo who represent Layman , said that at the heart of the argument they will be presenting to the supreme court is the issue of agency. “The plain language of the statute requires the defendant or one of his accomplices to do the killing. In Blake’s case neither he nor any of his co-perpetrators killed anybody – this was a justified killing by the person who was protecting his home,” Joel Wieneke told the Guardian.
Layman’s mother, Angie Johnson, expressed a similar thought in lay terms. She told the Guardian that “stealing and killing are two different things. In this case they took stealing and they turned it into killing – my son doesn’t deserve that.”
Blake Layman has had plenty of time to contemplate his action, and its consequences, since that Wednesday afternoon in 2012. “I’ve thought about it a lot. I made this bad decision and it derailed my entire life. I just wish I could go back and tell my 16-year-old self to see sense.”
He’s done a lot of growing up behind bars, shedding his child’s skin and the reckless decision-making that came with it. “I know I did wrong. I know I committed a crime. From the very beginning I’ve never disputed that. If they had brought me a burglary plea bargain I would have signed it, because I was guilty. I made a bad choice, and I gladly take responsibility for it,” he said.
But the one thing that he does not accept is that he is a murderer. “I’m not a killer,” he said.
Layman’s wounds have healed, leaving two very neat tattoos on the side and back of his leg where the bullet entered and exited. But he continues to feel deep remorse for what happened.
Police reports show that when the arresting officers turned up at Scott’s house, they found Layman lying face down on the carpet of the bedroom saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.
“I realised how bad everything had gone,” he told the Guardian. “I knew Danzele was dead. I was apologising to him, and to the homeowner – both of them really.”
He also had the chance to apologise to Danzele Johnson’s mother, who visited him in county jail when he was awaiting trial. “I told her if I get the chance, whenever I get out, I promised her I’d do right. Danzele was 21 years old and he didn’t get the chance to live his life. So I said I was going to do right when I get out, not just for me but also for him.”
Today Layman is housed in a wing of Wabash prison where inmates are put as a reward for best behaviour. He’s taking cognitive thinking classes, has learnt how to quilt, and spends a lot of time in the library reading up on the law. “I feel like if I have to do my time, why not better myself as much as I can while I’m here,” he said.
He’s hoping he will be allowed to walk free from prison before it’s too late. “I just want a chance to live,” he said. “I’ll go to work every day, and come home to my wife and kids. When I think of my future that’s what I see. I don’t ask for much.”
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