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March 8, 2011

Effective coverage of Iowa's challenges operationalizing Graham ruling

The Iowa Independent has this really interesting new piece headlined "Iowa courts struggling with application of U.S. Supreme Court ruling; Family of man convicted in 1994 when he was 17 hope federal decision can lead to parole." (Hat tip: How Appealing.)  Here are snippets:

In 1994, when [Jason] Means and five additional teens were found guilty of crimes in connection with [Michelle] Jensen’s death, both sides believed most of the legal uncertainty was behind them.  Means, then 17, was found guilty of first degree kidnapping, first degree robbery, second degree murder, criminal gang participation, conspiracy to commit robbery and unauthorized possession of an offensive weapon.  In Iowa, a conviction on the kidnapping charge alone mandated a prison sentence of life without parole.

Two other young men — one 17 and the other 18 — were also given prison sentences of life without parole.  The three remaining teens, who testified for the prosecution, were given lesser sentences.  Two have since been given parole, but have committed subsequent crimes that have placed them back behind bars.

Although there was an appeal launched by Means’ legal counsel shortly after his sentencing, it was always considered to be a long shot.  “After a certain amount of time, you resign yourself to the fact that this is the way it is going to be — that the rest of your son’s life will be spent in prison,” Cheryl Clark, Means’ mother, said in an interview with The Iowa Independent.

But a May 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, appears to have mandated a different fate for Means and Tony Hoeck, the other 17-year-old sentenced to life without parole....  The court found that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses is a violation of the “cruel and unusual” clause of the Eighth Amendment.... The court specifically stated that while such a juvenile offender is not given a “guarantee to eventual freedom,” the law does require the state to provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

While at first glance the Graham decision may appear as open-and-shut on matters involving those convicted of non-homicide offenses as juveniles, most cases remain tied up in the courts as states interpret and apply the ruling.  According to the Graham decision, there were 129 such juvenile offenders serving throughout the U.S. Of those, 77 were incarcerated in Florida, the remaining 52 scattered across 10 states.  There are an estimated eight such cases in Iowa, including one that was decided in December 2010 by the Iowa Supreme Court....

In September 2010, [U.S. District Court Judge Gary D.] McKenrick struck the portion of Means’ sentence that prohibited the opportunity for parole, leaving Means to “serve the remainder of his natural life in the custody of the director of the department of corrections, however the defendant shall be subject to parole consideration.”  According to information provided [Means' lawyer in court], despite the judge’s order Means continues to be denied an opportunity to appear before the parole board or be provided a future date for such a hearing....

State lawmakers are also considering their own proposals to bring the Iowa Code in line with the Graham ruling, but even if such a proposal becomes law, it is unlikely that it could be applied to the Means’ case or other old cases already before the court.  The law doesn’t allow courts to revisit sentences if the end result would be an increase in the severity of the sentence.  As it stands now, with the prohibition of parole removed, the sentences faced would be reduced to life with an immediate eligibility of parole — which is, in all likelihood, far less than what would codified for future cases....

“It would mean a great deal for Jason to have that hearing,” his mother, Cheryl Clark, said. “He should have an opportunity to stand before the parole board and present himself — how he has changed and what type of a person he is now.”  Steve Clark, Jason’s step-father, added that “he’s not the same person now that he was at 17.”...

Outside of the courtroom, however, Cheryl Dittmer continues to grip a framed photograph of her late daughter Michelle so hard that her knuckles match the marble floor.  Since 2008, she’s watched and protested as three of the teens convicted in connection with her daughter’s murder have been paroled. She isn’t ready to witness another.  “I agree with the premise of Graham,” Dittmer told The Iowa Independent after the hearing. “I believe that there should be an opportunity for a juvenile to show they’ve grown and changed — but not in this case.”

March 8, 2011 at 05:22 PM | Permalink

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Comments

If he was convicted of 2nd degree murder how is Graham even an issue? Am I missing something here? Especially for a federal district court judge to order that portion of the sentence struck. Was life without parole not even a /possible/ sentence for the other charges but only the kidnapping?

I would read Graham to require that the offender have not been convicted of a homicide, As soon as the person is convicted of a homicide the Graham bar should lift. I don't read Graham
as being concerned at all with the particular sentence any particular charge in the sentencing bundle carries, only that the whole set can not include life without parole if the offender was not convicted of a homicide.

I have absolutely no idea what the higher courts would do with this case if the state appealed though.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 8, 2011 5:35:54 PM

The information about the judge in the article is inaccurate. It was an Iowa state judge, not a federal judge (as reported accurately elsewhere at the time). I don't know if the State appealed or not,though.

Posted by: anon | Mar 11, 2011 1:39:10 PM

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