Blake Layman, 16, and some friends were smoking weed and complaining about their empty wallets in October 2012 when the group had the idea to break into a neighbor's house and steal some stuff to sell. When no one answered Rodney Scott's door five minutes later, they put their plan into action, breaking in through a side entrance. Unbeknownst to the intruders, Scott, who had been sleeping upstairs, grabbed his handgun. Layman soon watched as his friend, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, fell to the ground with a bullet in his chest. Hours later, police told Layman he was being charged with felony murder. "I was shellshocked," Layman tells the Guardian. "How could it be murder when I didn't kill anyone?" The "Elkhart Four," who ranged in age from 16 to 18, were tried as adults. One was given 45 years in prison in a plea deal; the three others were found guilty of felony murder and received 55 years in a case now under review by the Indiana supreme court.
Some 46 states have some form of felony murder law; 11 of those states allow anyone who commits a felony that results in a death to be charged with murder. Indiana's slightly more ambiguous law says a "person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit … burglary … commits murder, a felony." Lawyers for Layman, who was shot in the leg during the break-in, argue that wording "requires the defendant or one of his accomplices to do the killing. In Blake's case neither he nor any of his co-perpetrators killed anybody." Layman acknowledges, "I made a bad choice, and I gladly take responsibility for it." But "I'm not a killer." He adds, "I just want a chance to live" and will "go to work every day, and come home to my wife and kids ... I don't ask for much." If the court decides to take the case, it will decide whether to uphold or overturn the convictions at a later date, the Elkhart Truth reports. The group could instead face burglary charges in juvenile court if the convictions are overturned, WNDU notes. (Read more Indiana stories.)