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August 30, 2012

Despite (suspect?) commutation, Iowa judge grants post-Miller relief for juve killer sentenced to LWOP

As reported in this local article from Iowa, which is headlined "Jeffrey Ragland, sentenced to life at 17, may soon be a free man," a defendant in Iowa convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole back in 1986 may now be getting a shot a freedom thanks to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment work a few months in Miller.  Here are the details:

For the first time in nearly 26 years, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Jeffrey Ragland. Fourth District Judge Timothy O'Grady said Tuesday that Ragland should be eligible for parole immediately, after ruling that his life sentence without parole for the 1986 murder of 19-year-old Timothy Sieff was cruel and unusual punishment....

In 1986, a jury found Ragland, then 17, guilty of first-degree murder.  Sieff died of head injuries after being struck with a tire iron during a fight in a supermarket parking lot. Ragland's friend Matthew Gill wielded the tire iron.  Two other teens also were charged in the assault.

Gill and the two other teens accepted plea bargains.  Gill pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.  He was paroled after three years.

Iowa City attorney Jon Kinnamon, who represented Ragland along with Council Bluffs attorney Tom Lustgraaf, said he realized that there is tragedy in the incident: “Timothy Sieff was the recipient of a greater injustice.”  Still, he said, the time that Ragland has spent in prison compared with Gill is inappropriate.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in March that Ragland could challenge his sentence and seek a ruling on whether it constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state and federal constitutions.  That hearing was put on hold, however, until after the U.S. Supreme Court had addressed a similar matter.  In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a state to require a juvenile convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.  The court's 5-4 ruling left open the possibility that a judge could sentence a juvenile to a life term in an individual case but said state law cannot automatically impose such a sentence.

After the Supreme Court decision, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the mandatory life sentences of 38 convicted killers who committed their crimes as juveniles.  The governor's action changed the sentences from life without the possibility of parole to life sentences that allow parole after 60 years have been served behind bars.

O'Grady said Tuesday that Branstad's commutation does not fit with the intent of Iowa law, which says a person under age 18 who commits a Class A felony is eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison.  “I believe Mr. Ragland is eligible for parole now after serving 25 years in prison,” O'Grady said.  “The decision whether or not or when it is granted rests with the Board of Parole.”

This article reinforces my sense that the equities of each individual juve murder case will often, directly or indirectly, whether an how a defendant now garners relief from the Supreme Court ruling in Miller. Based on this press report, it appears that the defendant in this Iowa case was involved in a killing which was, relatively speaking, not among the most aggravated, and for which other defendants received significantly less punishment. As a result, it seems that local prosecutors did not strenuously resist the defendant getting some benefit from the Miller decision.

I suspect there will be (many?) much more aggravated murder cases, in Iowa and elsewhere, in which a local prosecutor will be much more eager to argue against a juvenile killer getting any kind of revised sentence.  When that happens, not only might a trial judge be less likely to rule in the defendant's favor, but prosecutors may then be more eager to challenge any granted relief on appeal.

August 30, 2012 at 12:13 PM | Permalink

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