In October 2012, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson was shot and killed by an Elkhart, Indiana homeowner while he and three friends broke into the man’s home and another served as a lookout. Although they didn’t pull the trigger, Danzele’s friends, 16-year-olds Blake Layman and Jose Quiroz, 17-year-old Levi Sparks and 18-year-old Anthony Sharp — now known as the “Elkhart 4” — were charged with his murder and sentenced to 45 to 55 years in prison. Dr. Phil delves into Indiana’s felony murder law, which provides that if a killing occurs during the commission of a felony, the persons responsible for the felony can be charged with murder. The boys’ mothers are outraged — and many in the community agree. Speaking out for the first time, Blake, Levi and Anthony talk to Dr. Phil via satellite from behind bars. Should the felony murder law apply to adolescents? Tune in and decide for yourself: Should these teens have been charged with a lesser offense?
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Controversial Murder Conviction
The mothers of Levi, Jose and Blake say they are angered by the verdict and that their sons should not have to pay a price for a crime they did not commit — especially murder.
“It’s like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.”
“Why is this unjust?” Dr. Phil asks the mothers. “These boys were committing a crime and then in the process of committing this crime, a death occurred.”
“Our boys didn’t murder anyone,” Angie says.
“The crime that was committed was a burglary,” Rebecca adds. “It just so happened to be that Danzele died, and it was not because of our boys.”
Dr. Phil points out that April’s son, Levi, was not in the house at the time of the shooting, as he was across the street. “Did he have prior knowledge of it?” Dr. Phil asks.
“Yes,” April replies.
“Were these boys thugs?” Dr. Phil asks the women.
“No,” they say in unison.
“Then why are they burglarizing somebody’s house?” Dr. Phil asks.
“Sitting around bored and just doing something very, very stupid,” April says.
Levi’s lawyer, Vincent Campiti, discusses the case. Why were there no character witnesses called during the trial? And, Dr. Phil explains the felony murder law.
Speaking Out for the First Time
Seventeen-year-old Blake, 18-year-old Levi and 19-year-old Anthony didn’t testify at their trial and have never spoken publicly about their case. Today, they speak out for the first time, from behind bars. Do they feel responsible for the death of their friend?
“What the hell were you doing breaking into some man’s house?” Dr. Phil asks.
According to Blake, he, Anthony, Jose and Danzele entered the house through a back door that was locked. He says there was a truck in the backyard, but no car in the driveway. “From what I understood, that wasn’t his vehicle, or that wasn’t the car he drove,” Blake says.
“I understand that when you came in, his watch and wallet were on the counter,” Dr. Phil says. “Did that suggest to you that he was home?”
“I didn’t think anything of it, at the time,” Blake says.
“You see, in retrospect, that’s a pretty common sense indication that the man’s home,” Dr. Phil says.
The Jury’s Decision
Walter, one of the jurors who served on the case, speaks out. Why did the jury pick murder over burglary? And, was it an easy decision?
“We, as a jury, had no choice but to convict them of felony murder.”
“It’s very clear to me that this was a difficult, difficult decision for you,” Dr. Phil says to Walter.
“It was very difficult,” he confirms.
“How do you feel as you sit here across from these mothers?” Dr. Phil asks.
“I’m sorry it ended up the way it did. We did the best we could do with what we had to work with,” Walter says to the women. “Seeing the boys on TV, that’s the first time I’ve heard them say anything. I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made if they would have talked or had some people give some references for them.”
Dr. Phil and Walter debate whether the young men truly perceived that there was imminent danger.
Dr. Phil asks Walter, “Did it bother you at all that the homeowner said that he was not afraid and that the boys were running away from him, not toward him, when he fired the gun?”
“When he started to fire, he was just trying to corral them in the bedroom — not trying to harm them, just trying to get them in there so he could call 911,” he says.
Angie asks Walter, “On trial, was it not said that the bullet holes were in the closet?”
Dr. Phil asks Angie, “Your thinking is that he herded two of them into the closet and shot them in the closet?”
“In trial, that’s exactly how it was brought up,” Angie says. “There was no blood anywhere in the house but at the closet. They were running from him. They were going to the closet to hide. Jose was already at the closet. He never saw Jose. Once the boys got into that bedroom, he shot at them.”
A Legal Analyst Weighs In
Former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin shares her thoughts. “I think what’s been so shocking to me — especially as someone who has prosecuted many, many cases — is that I’m hearing everyone is to blame,” she says. “It’s everyone’s fault, except for the boys’ fault, and that really is where the fault lies. They chose to burglarize a home. There’s always a possibility that someone’s home. I look at this as a home invasion. I look at this from the perspective of the victim. Imagine being asleep in a small home and having five young men in your house. Imagine the terror, imagine the trauma. It is the boys’ fault that their friend is dead. It is the boys’ fault that their mothers are in so much pain, that this juror is in pain, that the victim is likely in pain. It is all their fault, and I haven’t seen them once accept responsibility.”
Angie responds. “I understand the law, how it’s written and how you can conceive it, but these boys were also juveniles, while the one who is deceased was 21. He made his own choice to go in that house,” she says. “How should they be charged for his death? To me, they should all be responsible for their own life when they chose to go in that house.”
“They all decided together to commit a crime,” Sunny reiterates. “The law provides that if someone dies during the commission of that, you are responsible for it. I don’t think that we would all be here talking about this if the homeowner died, right? … This is just a typical felony murder case.”
“Is this too harsh to hold these boys accountable for 50-plus years for what happened in this case?” Dr. Phil asks.