Attorneys are keeping an eye on a juvenile sentencing case before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme court have ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. Now the Iowa Court could clear the way for the first challenger of a juvenile-life sentence to be set free.
The courts call it cruel and unusual punishment for a minor to be sentenced to life in prison without parole with no regard for ameliorating circumstances, such as immaturity at the time of the crime, or potential for rehabilitation. As a result of those rulings, Lettie Prell at the Iowa Department of Corrections says dozens of one-time teen offenders have asked to have their sentences reviewed.
“We have 46 in all,” says Prell. “So far 21 of those individuals have been resentenced, usually to life with the possibility of parole.
Prell says those 21 inmates have come before the parole board, and one by one they’ve been turned down for release. The soul exception is one-time teen offender Yvette Louisell, a case that’s being closely watched statewide.
Louisell, now 43 years old, was sentenced for the stabbing death of a disabled Ames man back in 1988 when she was 17. Her attorney Gordon Allen says both the prosecutor and the judge in Louisell’s original case favor her release.
“Under the Iowa constitution...without consideration of individual circumstances juveniles or those defendants who committed crimes while under the age of 18 can not be sentenced to a mandatory term of life without parole," Allen says. "They must be given individual consideration.”
But Allen says so far that’s not happening. Story County Judge James Ellefson took the unusual step of sentencing Louisell to 25 years with credit for time served, essentially granting her parole. Prosecutors sharply oppose the judge’s ruling.
Corwith Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, says the judge picked 25 years out of the blue.
“That court was reaching out in thin air and imposing a 25 year sentence,” says Ritchie. “There’s nothing in the current statute that provides for that.”
Louisell’s parole is on hold due to an appeal from Iowa Attorney General’s office to the Iowa Supreme Court. Oral arguments are complete and the court could rule at any time.
Meanwhile county attorneys want the legislature to come up with new sentencing options for teen offenders.
An Iowa Senate committee held a hearing on a bill that would have rewritten sentencing guidelines for juveniles. Family members whose loved ones were murdered by teens delivered impassioned testimony.
Back in 2002 Teresa Ellickson's brother Greg Wells was brutally killed in a robbery gone bad after he delivered a pizza to a Marion apartment. David Keegan, then 17 years old, and an accomplice beat Wells with a hammer.
“His body was convulsing and trying to shut down,” says Ellickson. “They thought he was making a lot of noise they tried to get him to quiet. They tried to break his neck. When they couldn't, they got a kitchen knife and slashed his throat.”
Keegan was convicted in adult court and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I felt relieved when the sentence came down,” says Ellickson. “I felt like we were done with the judicial process and he would be in jail forever.”
Ellickson says hearing Keegan might be eligible for parole sent her into a tailspin.
The Senate bill did not pass and now the county attorneys want the legislature to try again to give judges clear options, including a 35-year sentence. House Judiciary Committee chairman Republican Chip Baltimore says they’ve tried several times to pick a number.
“We were trying to reach agreement in 2012 and 2013, and somewhat in the 2014 on the proper number,” Baltimore says. “How many years must a juvenile serve short of life before they’re eligible for parole and we simply could not reach agreement on that.”
And now Baltimore says, it will be even harder because of a subsequent court ruling outlawing all mandatory minimums for juveniles without individual consideration.
Gordon Allen says he asked the Story County judge to correct what is in effect an illegal sentence for Louisell.
“In the situation where the legislature has refused to act, in the situation where the board of parole has not provided a reasonable opportunity, and since we have a factual finding that she is rehabilitated and not a security risk, why is she still incarcerated?” asks Allen.
The parole board doesn’t comment on cases, and the Attorney General’s office declined to be interviewed. However their case maintains that when the judge bypassed the parole board, that violates the separation of powers for the three branches of government.
Professor Mark Kende directs the Drake Constitutional Law Center. He saysthe state’s argument is weak.
“I don’t think it’s a good constitutional argument,” says Kende. “Judges traditionally do sentencing.”
Though Kende agrees it’s unusual for a judge to choose a sentence, he also says it's not spelled out in law.
Gordon Allen says judges should still have the option of life sentences.
“Some of these people should be released immediately,” says Allen. "And some of them should not be released at all.”
However the court rules in the Louisell case, it can’t be appealed. The case involves the Iowa Constitution so the Iowa Supreme Court has the final word.
Meanwhile other states have taken steps to address the constitutionality of their juvenile sentences. In Massachusetts, some one-time teenaged offenders have been granted parole and await their freedom.