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August 16, 2013

Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of juve defendants in three post-Graham appeals

As reported in this local article, headlined "Hundreds of juveniles could appeal felony sentences under Iowa court rulings," the Iowa Supreme COurt handed down three notable opinions today that operationalize the US Supreme Court's opinion in Graham concerning LWOP sentences for juve non-homicide offendes. Here are the basics:

Hundreds of juveniles convicted of felonies could apply to have their sentences reviewed under three decisions handed down Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Iowa's high court upheld a lower court's decision to reduce the sentence of Jeffrey Ragland, now 44, to life in prison with a possibility of parole after 25 years. Ragland, when he was 17 was convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, even though he did not swing the tire iron that killed a man.

The Iowa court also ordered two other juvenile cases for resentencing that did not involve mandatory life sentences without parole: Denem Anthony Null, now 20, is serving a minimum sentence of more than 52 years for a 2010 murder and robbery. He was 16 at the time of his crimes. Desirae Monique Pearson, now 19, is serving a minimum of 35 years for robbery and burglary committed in 2010....

In today's rulings, the court said Gov. Terry Branstad overreached last year when he sought to keep 38 juveniles in prison who were convicted to life in prison without a chance of parole. The governor imposed life sentences with a chance of parole after 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a teenager convicted of murder must be sentenced differently than adults.

Friday's decisions produced sharp divisions on the high court. Justice Edward Mansifeld, in his dissent in Pearson's case, cautioned the high court's broad interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding juvenile sentencing could produce a "flurry" of court hearings. He said the 425 juvenile inmates serving time in Iowa prisons “may now have a ticket to court and a potential resentencing.”

"This would be unprecedented," said Mansfield, noting other state courts have chosen to reconsider sentences that locked up juveniles for life without parole.

The impact of the court’s decision remains to be seen. Dozens, or even hundreds of cases, spread across Iowa should not strain the court system, said Robert Rigg, a Drake University law professor. The fact that juveniles convicted of serious felonies can ask for new sentences only opens the door to a hearing, and does not guarantee anything beyond that, Rigg said. The high court has required a judge consider a variety of factors during sentencing, such as a youth's history, socioeconomic background, history of substance abuse and psychiatric evaluations, he said.

All this information is already gathered. But under mandatory sentencing laws, a judge is not allowed to consider these factors, Rigg said. "When we have mandatory minimums, you order these investigations but can't use them in sentencing," Rigg said.

Gov. Terry Branstad intends to work with the legislature to establish criminal sentences that keeps convicted juveniles in prison, said Tim Albrecht, the governor’s spokesman. The high court’s decision does not affect the governor’s authority to grant clemency, which includes commutation of life sentences, he said. “Victims must never be re-victimized and can never be forgotten from the process,” Albrecht said. “The governor and lieutenant governor look forward to working with the Iowa Legislature to find a way to keep dangerous juvenile murderers off the streets and keep Iowans safe.”

Lawmakers could find it difficult to change the state's juvenile sentencing laws if they disagree with the court's rulings, because justices used the Iowa constitution to make its case. Those who disagreed with the court's 2009 decision that legalized same sex marriage ran into similar roadblocks, said Rigg, the Drake professor, who noted this approach also means the decision can't be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

State law until last year required anyone sentenced for first-degree murder, regardless of age, to spend life in prison without parole. Other mandatory sentences also existed for serious felonies. In June 2012, though, U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama found such sentences to be cruel and unusual based on brain research showing that juveniles are less culpable for their crimes due to differences in brain development and impulse control.

Branstad's immediate response to that federal ruling was a blanket commutation order that allowed parole for teen murderers only after they had spent 60 years behind bars. That move was widely criticized by lawyers and advocates for the 38 people serving time for such murders. Several of the offenders are appealing saying that 60 years still constitutes a long period of time behind bars....

After the U.S. Supreme Court, Ragland's attorney sought parole for his client. The district court ruled that Branstad exceeded his authority and resentenced Ragland to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in Friday's unanimous decision, upheld the lower court's ruling. The court agreed with the district court's findings that the governor's commutation still amounted to a life sentence without parole. Ragland would be 78 before he could possibly be released and near the end of his statistical life expectancy....

The court continued in its opinion: “In light of our increased understanding of the decision making of youths, the sentencing process must be tailored to account in a meaningful way for the attributes of juveniles that are distinct from adult conduct. At the core of all of this also lies the profound sense of what a person loses by beginning to serve a lifetime of incarceration as a youth.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice David Wiggins wrote that Branstad’s imposition of a sentence “might constitute a denial of due process.” In his concurring opinion Justice Bruce Zager wrote that he believed Branstad exceeded his constitutional authority when Branstad removed Ragland’s ability to earn good time credit against the commuted sentence.

Jon Kinnamon, Ragland’s attorney, said the court’s decision will open the door for his client to seek parole. He doesn’t know when Ragland’s case could be reviewed by the board, he said. He said he planned to contact Ragland and his family yet today. “I would presume that the next step would be that he would be in front of the parole board,” he said.

All three of the Iowa Supreme Court opinions are available via this webpage, and the Ragland opinion reference above is at this link. The longest opinion of the three is in Iowa v. Null, and its 83 pages can be found at this link.

August 16, 2013 at 03:50 PM | Permalink

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In terms of philosophy of appellate court structure, consider the following changes.

1) All appellate courts should have an even number of judges. If one is absent, delay the case unless another recuses himself, to restore the even number of judges. If a decision has an even number of votes, the lower court decision stands, usually in compliance with a prior appellate decision. That would limit the changes made by the court to ones carrying more than a one vote margin.

2) If the courts are going to legislate their arbitrary personal preferences and biased, mostly in support of bigger government, let the number of judges be legislative, like 400 judges on the court. Choosing them randomly from the population of citizens would make their views representative of the population. No one should be excused from serving and all should be paid their daily wage to not burden their employers.

3) Preferably, no one who has passed 1L should be allowed on any court. That year converts modern, intelligent students into dumbasses believing in supernatural doctrines by the cult indoctrination that is the law education. The lawyer cult drone should preferably be excluded by a constitutional amendment.

4) All sovereign immunities violate the rights of the victims of the lawyer profession. Immunity fully justifies retaliatory violence against the judges and lawyers in formal logic, in policy, and in just fairness. If tort liability is a substitute for violence is true, then immunity justifies violence in formal logic, being the true contra-positive of a true assertion. For example, a release prisoner harms another victim, these judges had full knowledge of the history of the convict, and future attacks on people are highly foreseeable. So the victims should return to the court and sue it into oblivion because it deserves to be.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 16, 2013 10:43:49 PM

The idea that these lawyers on the court can sue everyone, but no one may sue the lawyer elite is an abomination, unconscionable, and should be answered by pitiless violence. Knee cap these judges if any released prisoner hurts a future victim, a guaranteed future contingency, like the guarantee the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 16, 2013 10:57:12 PM

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