Branstad delays possible parole for convicts who killed as juveniles

Governor Terry Branstad responded today to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting mandatory life without parole sentences for people convicted of murder committed when they under age 18.

In its Miller v Alabama decision (full text here), a 5-4 majority of Supreme Court justices struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for convicted murderers who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes. The court did not state that a juvenile convicted of murder could never be sentenced to life without parole, but indicated that judges should have discretion, depending on mitigating circumstances related to the crime or to the convicted murderer’s background.

The Supreme Court’s ruling affects 38 Iowans serving time in Iowa prisons, plus about ten serving in other states’ facilities or in federal prisons.

Last week the Iowa Court of Appeals vacated mandatory life sentences for two Iowans convicted of murders committed when they were 17 years old. The court sent those cases back to district court for resentencing. Those criminals might have been sentenced to life in prison again. Or, they might have received lesser sentences, making them eligible for parole soon, since both crimes were committed during the 1980s.

Governor Branstad didn’t want to take a chance on any onetime juvenile killers getting out of prison in the near future. He is commuting the 38 life sentences for criminals in his jurisdiction (the ones in Iowa facilities) to life with parole possible only after the convict has served 60 years. Excerpt from the governor’s press release:

Branstad moves to prevent the release of dangerous murderers in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decision

[…]

“During this process, the victims are all too often forgotten by our justice system, and are forced to re-live the pain of the tragedies,” said Branstad. “These victims have had their loved ones violently taken away from them. I take this action today to protect these victims, their loved ones’ memories, and to protect the safety of all Iowans.”

In compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gov. Branstad will commute the life without parole sentences today to life with the possibility parole only after 60 years for the 38 people who were convicted of First Degree Murder while a juvenile.

This action means that they will not have the possibility of parole until they have served 60 years.

“Justice is a balance and these commutations ensure that justice is balanced with punishment for those vicious crimes and taking into account public safety,” said Branstad. “First degree murder is an intentional and premeditated crime and those who are found guilty are dangerous and should be kept off the streets and out of our communities.”

“Today Governor Branstad and I want to ensure that justice is served, Iowans are protected, and victims are heard,” said Reynolds. “The governor’s action today gives the opportunity for parole in compliance with the recent Supreme Court decision; however, the action also protects victims from having to be re-victimized each year by worrying about whether the Parole Board will release the murderer who killed their loved one.”

O.Kay Henderson reported on Branstad’s press conference for Radio Iowa, including comments from relatives of two people killed by juveniles. Understandably, they are grateful that they won’t have to worry about attending parole hearings anytime soon. Branstad told journalists,

“For those people convicted of lesser offenses they, we hope, can be rehabilitated. But we’re talking about the most heinous, the most serious pre-meditated crime: first degree murder.”

It’s not clear whether Branstad reviewed any of the circumstances involved in the 38 cases. I haven’t studied them either, so I don’t know whether he is correct that every criminal affected by his commutations displayed pre-meditated intent to kill. One of the key points in the Supreme Court ruling was that judges should have leeway to consider the specifics involved with a crime. Kuntrell Jackson of Arkansas, one of the petitioners involved in that case, was not the shooter and did not enter the video store in which his friend shot and killed the murder victim. Prosecutors charged Jackson of capital felony murder but did not present evidence of any “intent to kill”.    

Maybe some of the 38 Iowans serving life terms for killing people as juveniles deserve to spend their whole lives in prison. For instance, Michael Swanson, who was convicted of killing two convenience store clerks last year, didn’t sound like a good candidate for rehabilitation, based on news reports of his sociopathic tendencies. In other cases, the possibility of parole after a mandatory 60 years in prison may be appropriate, as the killers (by then septugenarians) may no longer be a threat to society. But in a case like Kuntrell Jackson’s, where the person convicted of first-degree murder didn’t pull the trigger or show intent to kill, one could argue that parole after less than 60 years may be appropriate, depending on the inmate’s mental state and behavior in prison.

Branstad complied with the letter of the Supreme Court ruling today, but not with its spirit. The justices were looking for greater discretion rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing murderers who were under 18 at the time of their crimes.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s editorial board is on my wavelength. From the unsigned lead editorial on July 18:

This is commutation in reverse: Instead of using his constitutional authority to shorten a prison sentence, Branstad’s order would guarantee life in prison for most if not all of these convicts. It was an audacious move, and a cheap way to score popularity points. It is easy to be in favor of justice for crime victims; it is challenging to care about justice for convicted criminals. […]

The Supreme Court was right that every juvenile convict deserves to have his or her case individually reviewed: Are there unique circumstances that make this juvenile less culpable for his or her actions? Did he commit the murder or participate in the crime in some other way? In the eyes of the law, both may be murder carrying the same penalty. The Supreme Court now says such mitigating factors must be considered in sentencing in the case of juveniles.

Branstad’s indiscriminate commutation order violates the intent of the Supreme Court’s ruling. It’s legality is likely to be tested. Two of those inmates who had earlier raised the same issues as in the U.S. Supreme Court case were granted new sentencing hearings by the Iowa Court of Appeals last week.

Those resentencing hearings should be held, and the governor’s blanket order aimed at cutting off access to the Parole Board should be challenged as unconstitutional. Ultimately, the Supreme Court should declare that no governor has the power to prevent the courts from striking down criminal sentences that violate the Constitution.

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