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The Elkhart Four

The unjust application of the felony murder rule on teens

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October 7, 2013

The article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on Oct. 4, 2013.

By Steve Drizin and Emily Keller

In October 2012, 16-year-olds Blake Layman and Jose Quiroz, 17-year-old Levi Sparks, 18-year-old Anthony Sharp, and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson broke into a house in Elkhart, Ind. The five were not armed and thought the house was vacant. Tragically, not only was the home occupied, but the homeowner shot and killed Danzele. Though not his killer, the four surviving teens were charged with Danzele's murder.

Last month, three of the teens were convicted of murder and sentenced to harsh prison terms. Blake Layman, who suffered a gunshot wound himself, was sentenced to 55 years in prison, as was Anthony Sharp. Because Levi Sparks never even entered the house, he received a slightly shorter sentence, but will still be in prison for half a century. The fourth teen, Jose Quiroz, pleaded guilty to the charges in order to receive a "reduced" sentence of 45 years. To many, this result is unthinkable: Unarmed teens decide to break into what they believe to be a vacant house, watch their friend get shot and killed by the homeowner, and now must spend the majority of their adult lives in prison for their friend's murder.

The plight of the "Elkhart Four", as the teens are now known, is a consequence of Indiana's felony murder statute, a law that allows participants in certain felonies -- in this case burglary -- to be convicted of murder if anyone is killed during the felony. Prosecutors need to prove only that the defendant intended to commit the underlying felony, not that the defendant killed or intended to kill the victim. Most states have adopted some version of this felony murder rule.

Felony murder statutes should not apply to children and adolescents. Such statutes rely on an assumption that an individual who takes part in a felony understands the risk that someone may get killed in the course of the felony. However, adolescent development and brain science research show that, compared with adults, children and teenagers are less able to perceive and assess risks. This research confirms what common sense tells us: adolescents are less capable decision-makers than adults -- they are more impulsive, less risk-averse, and have difficulty assessing the consequences of their actions, often prioritizing short-term rewards over any potential long-term negative consequences.

When teens like Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, and Jose Quiroz, take part in a burglary, they therefore are less able to foresee the negative outcomes that an adult may anticipate, including the chance that someone may get injured or killed. Unfortunately, children and teens are too often prosecuted under felony murder statutes that inaccurately presume that the teens understand the risk that someone could be killed as a result of their actions. Alarmingly, a report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International shows that approximately 26 percent of the 2,500 juveniles in the U.S. sentenced to life without parole received these sentences based on felony murder convictions. Though these children did not kill or intend to kill the victim, they have been sentenced to die behind bars.

Children who commit crimes should be held accountable, but their charges and sentences must be based on their own actions and culpability rather than results of their actions that they, as adolescents with poor risk-assessment skills, are unlikely to foresee. In Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court relied on adolescent development research in banning the juvenile death penalty and constraining the imposition of juvenile life without parole sentences, finding that children are categorically less culpable than adults. Similarly, the Elkhart Four should not remain behind bars until they are senior citizens based on an unforeseen killing, but should receive sentences based on their individual actions, reduced culpability, and potential for rehabilitation.

Even for adult offenders like 18-year-old Anthony Sharp, the felony murder rule should be constrained, especially in cases where the death of an accomplice was the result of an unpredictable, intervening event. Like the younger teens, Anthony was unarmed, his accomplices were unarmed, and he believed he was entering a vacant house. Some states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington provide a defense to felony murder charges if the defendant, like Anthony, was not the killer, was not armed, and had no reason to believe an accomplice was armed or planned to commit a potentially fatal act.

The time has come to align felony murder statutes with adolescent development research and common sense. Courts and legislatures should therefore exempt juveniles from felony murder prosecutions and provide defenses for adults where the death was the result of an unforeseen, intervening event. The case of the Elkhart Four presents a golden opportunity for the Indiana courts and legislature to take these steps and be a beacon to all the other states that will face this issue in the future.

- Steve Drizin is a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University.