Civil Liberties

Shoot and Kill No One, Get Charged with Murder Because Compatriot in Crime is Shot and Killed by Someone Else

"Elkhart Four" case highlights the curiosity of "felony murder" charges.


Those who think punishments should fit crimes might question the application of "felony murder" charges against people involved in a criminal activity that results in someone shot and killed even though the person charged was neither shooter nor killer.

TinkerBells / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Alternet via the Guardian details a case of a dumb kid who committed a dumb crime for which a partner-in-crime was killed by the homeowner they were robbing. He got 55 years for what was essentially an act of breaking and entering.


The boy was unarmed, had pulled no trigger, killed no one. He was himself shot and injured in the incident while his friend standing beside him was also shot and killed. Yet [Blake] 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 carry out.

How Blake Layman got to be in the Kafkaesque position in which he now finds himself – facing the prospect of spending most of the rest of his life in a prison cell for a murder that he did not commit – is the subject on Thursday of a special hearing of the Indiana supreme court, the state's highest judicial panel. How the judges respond to the case of what has become known as the "Elkhart Four" could have implications for the application of so-called "felony murder" laws in Indiana and states across the union.

Layman and four buddies broke-and-entered Rodney Scott's house, and he opened fire on them, killing one of them, Danzele Johnson, 21. The others were arrested, and Layman:

 recalls that a couple of hours after his arrest, he was told by officials at the county jail in his home town of that he was being charged with "felony murder". "I was shellshocked," he told the Guardian. "Felony murder? That's the first I'd heard of it. How could it be murder when I didn't kill anyone?"…

…..The judges [in this week's hearing] have asked lawyers for Layman and for the prosecution to address that specific question: is it consistent with Indiana law that he 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 put away for decades for murder?

The conundrum is not an arcane one. Some 46 states in the union have some form of felony murder rule on their statute books. Of those, 11 states unambiguously allow for individuals who commit a felony that ends in a death to be charged with murder even when they were the victims, rather than the agents, of the killing.

In Indiana the wording of the felony murder law is more nuanced 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."

Scott was legally justified in shooting Johnson; just because he can't be justly charged with murder doesn't mean the state should be able to root around to find someone to pin it on, even if that someone was committing another, lesser, crime for which they could be justly punished.

It's a similar principal behind cops in New York City charging an unarmed man who they shot at with assault for the bullet wounds that the cops inflicted on innocent bystanders. 

Elizabeth Nolan Brown last summer blogged a roundup of cases of "felony murder" and similar charges causing people who did not murder anyone to be nonetheless charged with murder.