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Court modifies conviction of fourth defendant in Elkhart Four case

ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. -

The fourth defendant in the Elkhart Four case, who accepted a plea agreement, has received post-conviction relief.

Jose Quiroz was in court Thursday morning for a hearing. The prosecutor asked the judge to modify Quiroz's conviction from murder to burglary.

The judge agreed and modified his conviction to burglary, the same charge as the other defendants.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the maximum sentence. His attorney says he will be released later this year, early 2017 at the latest.

In September 2015, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the murder convictions of his co-defendants, Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp and found them guilty of burglary. Sharp and Layman were each sentenced to 10 years in prison and Sparks was sentenced to 9.

In October 2015, the Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office filed a motion for modification of conviction based on the Indiana Supreme Court's decision in other defendants' cases.

Quiroz's mother spoke with ABC 57 after the hearing.

"It's just been a long struggle and I'm glad it's overwith," said Rebecca McKnight.

After Quiroz's conviction was changed from murder to burglary,  his 45 year sentence was changed to 10 years.

"We are very happy with the result. We think it's the right result," said Kathleen Cleary, Quiroz's attorney.

Cleary says she took on the case to find a fair sentence for her client who was convicted of murder when he was 17-years-old.

"The latest research shows that an adolescent's brain isn't as fully functioned and as this case developed, it just became much more interesting," said Cleary.

Cleary says Quiroz has been involved in many activities while in prison. So with credits and time served he could be released as early as October and as late as the beginning of 2017.

In a press release, the prosecutor's office wrote:

While the Prosecuting Attorney supports the jury’s conclusions based upon the law, this office further recognizes the authority of the Indiana Supreme Court to interpret the law as they would determine.

The Office of the Prosecuting Attorney has determined no sufficient legal grounds exist to warrant the modification of Quiroz’s conviction or sentence insomuch as he gave a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary admission to the charge of murder pursuant to the Indiana Statute on murder and consistent with the prior precedent of the Indiana Supreme Court.  Nevertheless, the court’s determination in the companion co-defendants’ cases has created an inequitable result which, in the interest of justice, requires a remedy.

Accordingly, the Prosecuting Attorney has requested that the court modify the conviction under this circumstance and enter a conviction and sentence consistent with that of the co-defendants as directed by the Indiana Supreme Court in their cases.  The defendant and his counsel have joined in this motion.  The Motion for Modification of Conviction is attached hereto for further detail.   

Background

Layman, Sparks, Sharp, Jose Quiroz and Danzele Johnson entered a home they believed was unoccupied in order to burglarize the house on October 3, 2012.

The homeowner, who was asleep upstairs, interrupted the burglary and shot and killed Johnson.

Layman, Sparks, Sharp and Quiroz were all charged with murder in the perpetration of a burglary.

At the time Layman, Sparks and Quiroz were juveniles.

Quiroz pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 years in prison and testified against Layman, Sparks and Sharp.

Layman, Sparks and Sharp were all convicted of murder in August 2013 during a jury trial. Layman and Sharp were sentenced to 55 years and Sparks was sentenced to 50 years.

Appeal filed

Layman and Sparks appealed because they believed the felony murder statute was improperly applied and their sentences were inappropriate.

Sparks separately appealed his conviction of the murder charge arguing he wasn't in the house when Johnson was killed.

In September 2014, the appellate court upheld the convictions, but ten years of Layman's sentence was suspended to probation.

Sparks' sentence was modified to an executed term of 45 years, the same number Quiroz received.

Also on appeal, Judge Bailey declined to address the constitutional claims the murder charge was inappropriately applied because it was not brought up at trial and the claim was forfeited.

Judge May addressed some aspects of the constitutional claims concluding they had not been forfeited.

Judge Kirsch concluded the felony murder statute was not properly applied.

Indiana Supreme Court reverses conviction

In September 2015, the Indiana Supreme Court granted a transfer and vacated the Court of Appeals' opinion.

The court overturned the murder conviction because for the felony murder charge to apply, the defendant had to have the ability to forsee the possibility the victim might resist or law enforcement would respond, which that created a risk of death to the perpetrators.

In previous cases where a defendant was charged with a co-conspirators death, the cases were substantially different. The defendants were armed or engaged in violent or threatening conduct.

In this case, the suspects were unarmed and none of the defendants engaged in violent or threatening conduct. There was nothing in their conduct that would "clearly the mediate or immediate cause" of Johnson's death, according to the court.

Because of this, the court found there was sufficient evidence to maintain a conviction on burglary charges, but not on the murder charge.

The murder charge was reversed for Layman, Sparks and Sharp.

The way the verdict form was written, the appellate court entered verdicts of guilty to burglary as a class B felony.

The Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office released the following statement.

The prosecutor’s office is in the process of fully considering the recent opinion of the Indiana Supreme Court. Further information will be forthcoming.

Defendants re-sentenced

In January 2016, Layman, Sparks and Sharp were resentenced on the burglary charge.

  • Blake Layman was sentenced to ten years in prison.
  • Levi Sparks was sentenced to 9 years.
  • Anthony Sharp was sentenced to 10 years.

Release from prison

Sparks was released from prison on January 28, 2016.

Quiroz seeks post-conviction relief

Because Quiroz accepted a plea deal, his case was not modified by the Indiana Supreme Court. Instead, he sought post-conviction relief. http://www.abc57.com/story/27314812/burglary-suspect-pleads-guilty-to-murder

On February 11, 2016, a judge modified his murder sentence to burglary.

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