Levi Sparks has had two years to think about the choices he's made. Two years in a tiny prison cell to wonder what would have happened if he'd stayed in school, hung out with a different crowd or walked away when his friends suggested burglarizing that house across the street from where he was crashing.
Levi's story was at the center of Wednesday night's (February 4) episode of "One Bad Choice," which recounted the events of that October 2012 day when a botched home invasion robbery turned deadly and landed him in prison for 45 years.
The Moment It All Changed
Kicked out of his high school for fighting, Levi, 20, was drinking and hanging out with his crew on the day of the incident. When his friend Jose Quiroz suggested they rob the house across the street -- whose owner he was sure wasn't home -- Sparks hung back on the porch, unwilling to join in on the break-in.
"I didn’t feel peer pressure at the time... they weren't bugging' for me to go," Sparks told MTV News in an interview from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Terre Haute, Indiana, where he's been since he turned 18. "They asked me one time and I said no. 'Are you sure? No' Then they took off. Breaking into someone's house was not something I was too fond of."
It seemed like the right call at the time. But sometimes even the right call can end up being the wrong one. Levi's friend, Blake Layman, left his keys and phone behind just in case Sparks needed to alert them that someone was coming. Levi has said all along that he never agreed to act as a lookout.
And then, something went terribly wrong. The boys woke up the homeowner, who shot and killed 21-year-old intruder Danzele Johnson, while wounding 16-year-old Layman, claiming he was acting in self-defense . When Quiroz called Blake's phone to alert Levi to the shooting, the act of picking up the phone changed Levi's life forever.
Even though he wasn't in the house at the time and none of his friends were armed, Levi and three of his friends were charged as adults with felony murder in the death of Johnson. The two who were in the house, Layman and Anthony Sparks, were sentenced to 55 years to life by a judge in 2013, while Sparks got a 50 year sentence and Quiroz agreed to a plea deal that reduced his sentence to 45 years. (Sparks' sentence was later reduced by five years.)
"There was nothing I could do," Sparks said when asked if there was a specific moment he could think back to that put him on the path he's on now. "I was living with Jose at the time and the house was right across the street. There was no place for me to go. Where else could I go? I was home."
Asked what he thought he'd be doing now if he wasn't in prison, Levi, said all the typical things you dream about at his age. "A job, college, getting married. I think about it constantly when I'm in my room laying down," he said, adding that he also dreams about having children with his fiancé, Amber. Locked down 23 hours a day in an 8 x 10 cell with his cellmate, Sparks passes the time by reading ("Harry Potter" and R.L. Stine, as well as the dictionary) and listening to Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Blake Shelton.
"What I thought I'd be doing is being on a successful path," he said. "I used to go around bragging about how I wanted to become a mortician. I would say that and then I completely do something ... that completely ruins that dream right there."
Why Did They Get Such Long Sentences If They Didn't Kill Anyone?
Indiana's felony murder statue allows for participants in certain felonies -- including burglary -- to be convicted of murder if someone is killed during the felony. So, even though none of the home intruders had weapons and they did not kill Johnson themselves, prosecutors only had to prove that the defendants intended to commit the felony, not that they intended to kill anyone. (Sparks received a relatively lighter sentence because he was not in the house at the time of the killing.)
On February 26, attorneys for the so-called Elkhart Four went before the Indiana Supreme Court hoping to convince justices to take jurisdiction of the case and either order a new trial or order the trial court to issue a different sentence considering that Layman, Sparks and Sharp were minors at the time of the incident.
Some legal scholars have argued that the teens should not be eligible for this kind of felony conviction in adult court because it has been proven that adolescents have poor risk-assesment skills and, in this case, probably couldn't have foreseen the deadly results of their actions.
"My bad choice was hanging out with those people," Sparks said, adding that he's turned things around, gotten his GED, found a fiancé and kept busy studying the human body so he might still achieve that dream of being a mortician.
The Indiana Supreme Court will rule later on whether it will hear the case itself or let stand the previous court of appeals decision that upheld the convictions.
In the meantime, Sparks is keeping his head up, hoping that he can turn around that one bad choice and get his second shot.
"I believe we still have a chance," he said of the possibility his conviction will be overturned. "I still have hope as of right now anyway. Even if things don't work out, I still know I will get out of here... I just have to keep my mind to it."