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How four teens were convicted of a murder they didn’t commit

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Oct. 3, 2012 started out as any normal day in Elkhart, Indiana, but ended in tragedy when the life of a young man was taken, leaving the blame with his closest friends.

Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, Jose Quiroz, Anthony Sharp, and Danzele Johnson were looking for some quick cash to score some marijuana when they decided to break into a house, according to USA Today.

They settled on what they believed to be an empty house and proceeded to break in. Who they did not expect — and who did not expect them — was homeowner Rodney Scott, who, in fear of his life, fired a warning shot.

That was the shot that ultimately ended Johnson’s life.

Layman, Sparks, Quiroz and Sharp, otherwise known as the “Elkhart Four,” have each been convicted with the felony murder of Johnson, despite not having pulled the trigger. Scott has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Indiana’s felony murder statute states that a person can be charged with murder if someone is killed while he or she is committing or attempting to commit another crime. While intent to kill must be proven to convict a person with murder, a felony murder charge can be passed down even if the death is accidental.

Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, who charged the Elkhart Four, said the statute is necessary to bring justice to unjust murders.

“We don’t really want people dying and sort of shrugging our shoulders and say, ‘Oh well,'” Hill said in an interview with USA Today. “Part of our justice system is to bring closure and completeness in terms of what happened, why it happened and what ought to be done.”

Timothy O’Neill, a law professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago who is opposed to the statute, said the statute placed unnecessary blame on people who were not involved.

“It’s one thing to say you commit a robbery or a theft. You’re not saying the person is a completely innocent person,” O’Neill said. “Blameworthiness for theft doesn’t necessarily turn a person into a murderer. There’s a disconnect.”

Quiroz, who plead guilty to the felony murder of Johnson, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for Johnson’s murder. Layman and Sharp were each sentenced to 55 years in prison, while Sparks, who was not in the house at the time of the murder, was sentenced to 50.

After a successful appeal, Layman and Sharp’s sentences were reduced to 45 years in prison and 20 years probation and Sparks’ was reduced to 40 years. The case is currently being heard in Indiana’s Supreme Court, where the justices will decide whether or not to rule on the case.

Layman hopes to marry his fiance and move from Elkhart to get away from the never-ending controversy.

“That’s not how I want to be recognized. I made a mistake, and I got put in a really bad situation,” Layman said. “It’s not something I’m proud of.”

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