Occasionally a case comes along just to show how truly mad the criminal justice system can be in the United States. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. It concerns the case of a young man called Blake Layman, who as it turns out, made one extremely bad decision. It happened three years ago and he was 16 at the time. You would describe him as an unexceptional teenager, who grew 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. But Blake Layman would become embroiled in a fateful decision that sparked a chain of events culminating in his arrest and trial for “felony murder.’’
For those who don’t understand the concept of felony murder, here is an explanation. There are 46 states in the American union that have some form of felony murder law on their statute books. Of those 46, 11 states unambiguously allow for individuals (here is the crucial bit) who commit a felony, that ends in a death, to be charged with murder, even if they were the victims, rather than the agents, of the killing.
Blake Layman was unarmed. He never pulled the trigger of a gun. He killed no one. In fact he was shot and injured in the incident while his friend, standing beside him, was 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 do. How Blake Layman got to be in the position, in which he now finds himself, is like something out of a Franz Kafka novel. He faces the prospect of spending almost the rest of his life in a prison cell for a murder that he most surely did not commit. Fortunately for him, his case is the subject of a special hearing of the Indiana Supreme Court, the state’s highest judicial panel. But how the judges respond to this case that has become known as the “Elkhart Four” has implications for how the so-called “felony murder” laws, in Indiana and the other states across the union, will be applied in the future.
But to understand the Blake Layman story, we need to go back in time. 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 his mates, Jose Quiroz, also 16, and Levi Sparks, 17. They smoked a little marijuana, got a little high, and complained to each other about how broke they were. Yes they were not particularly smart young men. Layman spends a lot of time these days looking back on that afternoon and wondering why he did what he did? Why he threw away his young life? He was doing well at school, had an evening job at Wendy’s, had a girlfriend that he liked, was preparing to take his driving license test.
“It felt to me like life was really coming together at that point,” he said. But within minutes, all of that promise evaporated in an act of teenage madness. One of his group noticed that the grey pickup truck belonging to Rodney Scott, a man who lived across the street, wasn’t in its usual parking spot. They, very stupidly, drew the conclusion that the homeowner must be at work or away somewhere. The house, therefore, must be empty.
The group of young men made a spur of the moment decision, Layman and his teenage buddies came up with a plan to break into the house, steal a few things to sell and leave before Scott returned. It would be an easy, risk and harm-free plan to make some quick money. It was reckless and stupid and criminal and it all happened fast. Really fast. They called a couple of older friends from down the road, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson and 19-year-old Anthony Sharp to join them on their criminal enterprise. They knocked as loudly as they could on Scott’s door and when there was no reply – it was confirmation in their minds that the house was unoccupied – so they broke open the side door. Five minutes after having that original, dumb idea, four of them were in the house with Sparks maintaining a watch outside. They ran through the kitchen, with Layman pocketing a wallet on the kitchen table, never once stopping to think that it would not have been left there if the house were empty. They rummaged in a spare bedroom and then indicated to each other it was time to leave.
And that’s when the shooting started.
Layman heard the boom of a gunshot 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.
The homeowner, Rodney Scott was not, as the young men assumed, away from the house. He was asleep upstairs and when he heard the commotion of the break-in, grabbed his handgun. Of course he did not know that the intruders were unarmed, when he fired a couple of rounds, one of them striking Layman in the leg and the other fatally hitting Johnson in the chest. Layman replayed those fateful minutes during a recent newspaper interview as he sat 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 remembers the couple of hours after his arrest, when he was told by officials at the county jail in Elkhart that he was being charged with “felony murder.”
“I was shellshocked,” Layman said. “Felony murder? That’s the first I’d heard of it. How could it be murder when I didn’t kill anyone?”
The ‘how’ is a good question. But 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 jail. Layman was sent to prison, aged 17, to begin his 55 years in a lock-up cell.
But now judges in the Indiana Supreme Court have asked lawyers representing Layman, and for the prosecution, to address them on this specific question: Is it consistent with Indiana law that Layman 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 locked away in prison for more than a generation for murder?
It is important to understand that in Indiana, the wording of the felony murder law is more specific 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.”
The legal team representing Layman, said the heart of the Argument, they will present to the Supreme Court, is the issue of agency. They will argue that the plain language of the statute requires the defendant or one of his accomplices to have done the killing. But, in Blake Layman’s case neither he nor any of his co-accused killed anybody. Conversely the law also says that this was a justified killing by the person who was protecting his home. So the homeowner, Rodney Scott faces no criminal sanction.
Layman’s mother, Angie Johnson, a woman much smarter than her son, makes the important distinction 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,” Johnson said.
Blake Layman has a lot of time to contemplate his actions, and their 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.”
Those closest to him say he’s done a lot of growing up behind bars, discarding the youthful impetuosity 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 he does not accept is that he is a murderer. “I’m not a killer,” he said.
He is right of course.
Layman’s wounds have healed, leaving two very neat tattoos on the side and back of his leg, where the bullet entered and exited. And 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,” Layman said. “I knew Danzele was dead. I was apologising to him, and to the homeowner – both of them really.”
Layman also had the chance to apologise to Danzele Johnson’s mother, who visited him in the county jail while 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.”
Blake Layman is currently housed in a wing of Wabash prison where inmates are put as a reward for their good 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 while he is still a young man. “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.”
Considering everything that happened, I think he should be given that chance.