« Ind. Gov't. - Vote delayed on Carmel anti-discrimination ordinance | Main | Ind. Decisions - Court of Appeals issues 1 opinion(s) today (and 9 NFP memorandum decisions) »

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court today issues opinions in Elkhart 4 cases

In Blake Layman & Levi Sparks v. State of Indiana, a 13-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Rucker writes:

In this consolidated appeal juvenile cohorts Blake Layman and Levi Sparks challenge their convictions for felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary. We remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings. * * *

On transfer Layman and Sparks advance many of the same constitutional claims raised before the Court of Appeals. We decline to address them for two reasons. First, neither party raised these claims at trial. They are thus waived for appellate review. It is certainly the case that “appellate courts are not prohibited from considering the constitutionality of a statute even though the issue otherwise has been waived.” * * * Setting aside that such sweeping revisions are best left to the Legislature, we are of the view that judicial intervention to address constitutional claims for the first time at the appellate level is not appropriate, especially here where for the most part Appellants’ claims are dependent on potentially disputed facts. * * *

Second, and more importantly, it is long established that “a constitutional question unnecessary to a determination of the merits should not be decided.” * * * As discussed in more detail below the propriety of the Appellants’ convictions may be resolved on non-constitutional grounds. * * *

Appellants invite us to revisit and overrule Palmer and instead adopt the view expressed by the dissenting Justices in that case, namely, that a plain reading of the felony murder statute does not authorize the imposition of liability for murder where the defendant’s fellow perpetrator was the person killed. * * *

We decline the invitation to overrule Palmer. First, it has been the law in this jurisdiction now for over a decade and a half. And we have since affirmed its validity on two occasions. * * * Although Layman and Sparks disagree with Palmer and direct our attention to jurisdictions that take a different view on the proper application of the felony murder rule, we perceive no urgent reason to revisit our long-standing precedent nor are we convinced that Palmer is clearly erroneous.

Further, Appellants’ contention that the dissenting view in Palmer more accurately reflects the correct reading of Indiana’s felony murder statute is at odds with the fact that in the years since Palmer was decided the Indiana Legislature has amended the felony murder statute on at least four occasions,3 but has not done so in a way that undermines this Court’s consistent interpretation of the statute. “It is well-established that a judicial interpretation of a statute, particularly by the Indiana Supreme Court, accompanied by substantial legislative inaction for a considerable time, may be understood to signify the General Assembly’s acquiescence and agreement with the judicial interpretation.” DePuy, Inc. v. Farmer, 847 N.E.2d 160, 168 (Ind. 2006) * * * Thus, both the doctrines of stare decisis as well as legislative acquiescence counsel against overruling our existing precedent in this area of the law. * * *

Layman and Sparks also contend the felony murder statute was not properly applied in this case. * * *

In any event, although we affirm the continued validity of Palmer and its progeny, the facts in those cases are significantly different from the facts here. * * *

Aside from the fact that in each case a co-perpetrator was fatally injured by someone other than the defendant, the common thread uniting Palmer, Jenkins, and Forney was that an armed defendant engaged in violent and threatening conduct, either as a principle or an accessory, that resulted in the “mediate or immediate cause” of a co-perpetrator’s death. By contrast the record here shows that when the group broke and entered the residence of the homeowner intending to commit a theft—a burglary—not only were they unarmed, but also neither the Appellants nor their cohorts engaged in any “dangerously violent and threatening conduct.” Jenkins, 726 N.E.2d at 271. There was simply nothing about the Appellants’ conduct or the conduct of their cohorts that was “clearly the mediate or immediate cause” of their friend’s death. Palmer, 704 N.E.2d at 126. Thus, while the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for the underlying burglary, it is not sufficient to sustain a conviction for felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary. Accordingly, we reverse Layman’s and Sparks’ convictions for felony murder.

But what next? For reasons that are unclear from the record before us the State did not follow common practice and file an additional count of burglary against the defendants. It chose instead to file a single count of felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary. Nonetheless, “the completed or attempted underlying felony is always a lesser included offense of felony murder. Therefore, charging a person with felony murder also, in effect, necessarily charges him with the underlying felony.” Douglass v. State, 466 N.E.2d 721, 722-23 (Ind. 1984) (quotation and citation omitted). * * *

In fact the verdict form given to the jury provided three choices: “Guilty of Felony Murder,” “Guilty of Burglary, a Class B felony, a lesser-included offense,” and “Not Guilty.” App. at 94. Essentially all parties understood and agreed that the un-charged lesser-included offense in this case was burglary as a class B felony. We thus remand this cause with instructions to enter verdicts of guilty to burglary as a class B felony and resentence the Appellants accordingly.

Conclusion. We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand this cause for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. [ILB emphasis]

In Anthony P. Sharp, Jr. v. State of Indiana, an 8-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Rucker writes:
In a companion case today we remanded to the trial court for further proceedings the sentences imposed on felony murder convictions of two teenage co-defendants—sixteen-year-old Blake Layman and seventeen-year-old Levi Sparks. See Layman v. State, No. 20S04-1509-CR-548, ___ N.E.3d ___ (Ind. 2015). For the same reasons explored in that consolidated appeal we also remand for further proceedings the sentence imposed on a third co-defendant—eighteen-year-old Anthony Sharp. * * *

[W]e reversed the felony murder convictions of both Blake Layman and Levi Sparks. Because Anthony Sharp is identically situated we reverse his felony murder conviction as well and remand this cause for further proceedings. For reasons we explained in Layman, Id. at 11-13, on remand the trial court is instructed to enter a verdict of guilty against Sharp for burglary as a class B felony and resentence him accordingly.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 18, 2015 11:11 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions