Determining an Appropriate Sentence for Juveniles Convicted of 1st Degree Murder

Mar 30, 2015

Iowa has a law mandating life in prison without parole for teen killers, but this law is deemed unconstitutional by both the U.S. and the Iowa Supreme Courts.

A proposal moving through Iowa’s legislature would modify the state’s current law mandating life in prison for juveniles convicted of murder. The legislation gives judges three sentencing options. One of those options is still life in prison without parole.

On this edition of River to River, Ben Kieffer talks with lawmakers who would like to allow courts to grant parole immediately, and lawmakers who want the option for the courts to hand down the sentence of life without parole.

Rep. Mary Wolfe (D), other Democrats, and the ACLU, question whether allowing a life sentence without parole would be constitutional.

“My alternative would be to just remove the provision in the bill that gives the court authority to sentence a child to life in prison without possibility of parole,” she says. “I think that would still give the court all the same options it has, it would just not have us codifying what has been termed cruel and unusual punishment in our law.”

Other lawmakers within the House Judiciary Committee disagree with Rep. Wolfe, including Rep. Chip Baltimore (R).

He believes that the sentence for life in prison without parole is necessary in cases of severe crime, similar to one in 2002, where Greg Wells was brutally killed by a 17 year old in a robbery gone bad, after delivering pizza to a Marion apartment. Teresa Ellickson is Wells’ sister, and she offered testimony last fall to lawmakers, describing the incident.

“I felt relieved when the sentence came down, because I felt like we were done with the judicial process, knowing he would be in jail forever.”

In search of a compromise, Sen. Rob Hogg (D) has worked out what he thinks can pass and still be constitutional.

“The 35 year mandatory minimum is now out of this bill, and we’re relying on the discretion of the judges and I think there’s a really good chance that we’ll get this passed,” he says.

Black Hawk County Attorney, Tom Ferguson, advising on the legislation for the Iowa Bar Association, says judges need flexibility, including the option for life in prison without parole.

“I think the courts have said these cases will be rare or uncommon, and my experience is that they will be rare and uncommon,” he says. “I’ve been prosecuting for over 30-years and I’ve had three juvenile cases involving first degree murder.”

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Also on today’s Legislative Day show, Ben Kieffer talks with Rep. Jarad Klein (R) and Rep. Dan Kelley about several bills regarding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).