Monday, August 26, 2013

Death in the Afternoon

Danzele Johnson
Crimes and Consequences
by Robert A. Waters

Elkhart, Indiana
October 3, 2012

At 2:30 p.m., Rodney Scott, who was taking a nap, awoke to the sound of a loud bang.  In a police affidavit, he stated that his house felt as if it were “shuddering.”  Arming himself with a 9mm handgun and his cell phone, Scott rushed downstairs.  There he encountered Blake Layman, 16, Jose Quiroz, 17, Anthony Sharp, 18, and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson.  (Another conspirator, Levi Sparks, 17, waited on the porch of a house across the street to act as a lookout.)

Scott, on seeing four strangers in his residence, opened fire.  Two intruders fled into a bedroom, while a third ran into the kitchen and out the back door.   Amid the chaos, Scott called 9-1-1.  As he attempted to hold the two intruders who had run into the bedroom for police, Quiroz bolted from a closet and jumped out a window.

Officers of the Elkhart Police Department responded to the scene.  Chasing down Quiroz, they arrested him.  Inside the home, they discovered Johnson’s body.  They also found Layman, who had a bullet wound to his leg—he was transferred to a local hospital, treated, released, and then arrested.

In custody, Quiroz was soon replicating canary-speak.  According to police reports, he told investigators that the robbers “did not believe anyone was home and the homeowner had some gold they could steal.”  Describing the break-in, Quiroz stated that Danzele Johnson kicked in the back door and the others followed him inside.  He said Anthony Sharp carried a .22-caliber pistol, and that he and Layman armed themselves with steak knives from the kitchen.

Investigators ruled that Scott had acted in self-defense and would face no charges. 

However, that was not the case with Quiroz, Sharp, Layman, and Sparks.  Since Johnson had died as a result of the botched burglary, prosecutor Curtis Hill charged the four surviving home invaders with murder.  In Indiana, suspects can be charged with felony murder if someone (even a cohort) is killed during the commission of a felony. 

Quiroz pled guilty to second degree murder and received a sentence of 45 years.

Family members of the remaining suspects started an aggressive campaign to get the murder charges dropped.  A petition by the family of Blake Laymen laid out their case: On October 3rd police contend that five teenagers broke into the residence of Rodney Scott, operating under the belief that he was not home. When Scott heard noises he armed himself with a gun, called 911, and confronted the teenagers. He fired shots at them. In response, the teens attempted to escape from the home, including one who jumped through a window to avoid being shot. Scott injured one teen and killed the oldest member of the group –21-year-old Danzele Johnson.

As a result of this incident, the prosecutor of Elkhart County, Curtis Hill, is holding all of the surviving teens responsible for felony murder. Felony murder is treated exactly as first degree premeditated murder except there is no requirement for the prosecution to prove the person charged had any intention of committing murder.

The problem here is that these teenagers did not commit murder. Their friend was killed as a result of the alleged break in, but these teenagers are being held accountable for this death as though they planned it and committed it themselves. The consequences for this could be as harsh as life without any possibility of parole.

This is not justice.

As the family of 16-year-old Blake Layman, who is facing the charge of felony murder and was himself wounded by one of the gunshots, we are asking that some common sense and reason be applied in this situation. Blake has no criminal record. He and the other teenagers involved are not throwaway children. They did not commit a murder. They should not be facing a charge of murder. The only message this sends is that communities place no value on children and teenagers and are completely unwilling to impose appropriate consequences for mistakes that are made. Exposing these teenagers to life sentences, as adults (which they are not), is not the answer. The adult prison system is not equipped to rehabilitate and this is proven based on many studies, conducted over many years.

We, the undersigned, are asking that Prosecutor Hill reconsider his stance on this case and drop the charge of felony murder. Felony murder is an outdated, archaic, and unconstitutional law. A number of states have abolished it completely for these very reasons…

These teenagers deserve a second chance and felony murder is NOT the appropriate charge.

Even though the petition garnered nearly 2,000 signatures, it was a tough sell.  Prosecutor Hill never wavered in his determination to try the suspects for murder.

Last week, on August 21, 2013, a jury found all three defendants, Blake Layman, Anthony Sharp, and Levi Sparks, guilty of “felony murder.” (When sentenced, they face long prison sentences.) Family and friends sobbed and screamed in disbelief.  Defense attorney Vincent Campiti called it “a shocking verdict.”

Hill replied: “The verdict, I believe, was appropriate.  It was a very difficult case, a very important case because it does send a message to those that committed the crime.”

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