Iowa Supreme Court allows review of long sentences for juveniles

Catching up on news from last week, the Iowa Supreme Court handed down three important decisions related to juvenile sentencing on August 16. I finally had a chance to read through the rulings, which do not guarantee early release for any prisoner but could allow hundreds of Iowans to have their sentences reviewed, if they were convicted for crimes committed as minors.

Follow me after the jump for background and key points from the three rulings. Unfortunately, Governor Terry Branstad still seems to be missing the point of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that set all of these cases in motion.

In June 2012, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v Alabama (pdf) that mandatory  sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional. The Miller decision potentially affected 38 Iowans serving life without parole sentences in state prisons, plus ten more Iowans doing time in other state prisons or federal prisons for crimes committed when they were under age 18.

Within weeks, the Iowa Court of Appeals ordered new sentencing for two prisoners serving mandatory life without parole sentences. Each had been convicted of crimes committed at age 17.

Looking to short-circuit the possible release of any convicted killer, Governor Branstad decided in July 2012 to commute the life without parole sentences “to life with the possibility of parole only after 60 years for the 38 people who were convicted of First Degree Murder while a juvenile.” I argued at the time that the governor’s action went against the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, because he did not consider the individual circumstances of any criminal affected by his actions. The majority in Miller called for greater discretion, not a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing murderers who were under 18 at the time of their crimes. Branstad jumped to the conclusion that none of these 38 people could be rehabilitated and all deserved to stay in prison until at least their late 70s, if they lived that long.

One of the 38 was Jeffrey Ragland, who had been serving a mandatory life sentence for his involvement in a 1986 murder. Many years earlier, he had tried and failed to have that sentence reduced, on the grounds that he did not strike the blow that killed the murder victim. Last summer he went to court arguing that his new sentence requiring at least 60 years in prison before parole violated the constitutional principles outlined in Miller.

Side note: Ragland’s case illustrates how important it is to have a good attorney if you are ever accused of a crime. His three friends reached plea bargains with prosecutors and served far less time. In fact, the boy who struck the killing blow only served three years for second-degree murder before being paroled. Ragland refused to plead guilty, so was charged and convicted of first-degree murder (because he had started the fight that ended in a killing) and sentenced to life without any hope of parole. The letter the killer wrote in 2012, urging the district court to show leniency when resentencing Ragland, is one of the saddest things I have read lately (see pages 6-7 of this pdf file).

Ragland’s case succeeded at the district court level.

After considering the testimony provided at the hearing, the district court found the Governor exceeded his authority by commuting the sentence because the commutation circumvented the individualized sentencing required under Miller and deprived Ragland of a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate his maturity and rehabilitation. The district court resentenced Ragland to life in prison with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years.3 Consequently, the new sentence imposed by the district court made Ragland immediately eligible for parole.

But the State of Iowa appealed that sentence to the Iowa Supreme Court. Ryan Koopmans paraphrases their arguments:

Life with the possibility of parole is not the same thing as life without the possibility of parole, even if the parole opportunity comes after a really long time in jail.  What the State is doing, in effect, is pushing the logical limit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding.  The juveniles who are subject to the Governor’s commutations will be in their mid to late 70s when their first parole hearing comes around.  And, given the probabilities, some of them will likely be dead by then.  So is that a de facto life sentence?  And if so, where’s the line?  Is 50 years okay?  45 years? 30 years? 10 years? Must the State reevaluate the defendant on his 18th or 21st birthday?

After reading the facts of the Ragland case, I would be embarrassed to be the state attorney arguing that Branstad’s actions were consistent with the Miller ruling. Here’s a prisoner who was convicted of murder even though he didn’t directly kill anyone, much less kill a person in a pre-meditated way. Neither the details of the crime nor his behavior in prison nor the support system in place for him post-parole were taken into account when Branstad issued his blanket commutation. Just let the guy rot in state custody until he’s 78 years old.

Anyway, in State v. Ragland, the Iowa Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a minimum 60-year sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile offers a “meaningful” opportunity for parole. Ryan Koopmans provided a thumbnail sketch of the other cases decided last week.

Denem Null thinks the Iowa Supreme Court should go even further than that [invalidating Branstad’s commutations to minimum 60-year sentences].  A district court judge sentenced him to 75 five years with the possibility of parole after 52.5 years.  That wasn’t a mandatory sentence, so to rule in Null’s favor, the Iowa Supreme Court will have to decide that Miller extends to discretionary, non-life sentences.

Going further still, Desirae Pearson is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to extend Miller to a discretionary, 50-year sentence for two counts of armed robbery and burglary.  She’s up for parole after 35 years.

The seven Iowa Supreme Court justices unanimously affirmed the new sentence for Ragland ordered by the district court: life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote the majority ruling, which you can read here (pdf). After reviewing the facts of the case, Cady explains why the court found that the Miller ruling applies retroactively to Ragland, who had been convicted many years earlier. Excerpts:

To implement its substantive constitutional prohibition against mandatory life-without-parole sentences, Miller requires courts to establish a procedure providing for an individualized sentencing hearing tailored to the unique attributes of juveniles when prosecuted as adults for homicide and facing a sentence of life without parole. […]

On balance, we think the best analysis of the issue is found in an article by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. He stated:

There is a strong argument that Miller should apply retroactively: It says that it is beyond the authority of the criminal law to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole. It would be terribly unfair to have individuals imprisoned for life without any chance of parole based on the accident of the timing of the trial.

. . . [T]he Miller Court did more than change procedures; it held that the government cannot constitutionally impose a punishment. As a substantive change in the law which puts matters outside the scope of the government’s power, the holding should apply retroactively.

Next, the justices considered “whether Ragland’s sentence, as commuted by the Governor, rendered Miller inapplicable to Ragland.” The state argued in its appeal that “the district court unconstitutionally intruded on the authority of the Governor by refusing to give effect to the commutation” (minimum 60 years before eligible for parole).

The majority ruling sidestepped the question of whether Branstad exceeded his authority with his mass commutation: “we do not believe it is necessary to traipse into this constitutional thicket.” However, case law cited on page 17 indicates that a governor “cannot use the commutation power to increase a defendant’s punishment.” Increasing the prison terms of the 38 lifers was Branstad’s explicit intent, so one could reasonably argue that he abused his commutation power.

In any event, the justices agreed with Ragland that he is serving a mandatory sentence. From pages 19-20:

The commutation by the Governor of Ragland’s sentence to a term of years did not affect the mandatory nature of the sentence or cure the absence of a process of individualized sentencing considerations mandated under Miller. Miller protects youth at the time of sentencing.  […] Even with the commutation in 2012 by the Governor, Ragland has been deprived of the constitutional mandate that youths be sentenced pursuant to the Miller factors. […]

Ragland must serve sixty years of his sentence before he may be considered for parole. While this sentence is not a life term, Ragland will not be eligible for parole until he is seventy-eight years old. Under standard mortality tables, his life expectancy is 78.6 years. […]

For all practical purposes, the same motivation behind the mandates of Miller applies to the commuted sentence in this case or any sentence that is the practical equivalent to life without parole. […]

Thus, the rationale of Miller, as well as Graham, reveals that the unconstitutional imposition of a mandatory life-without-parole sentence is not fixed by substituting it with a sentence with parole that is the practical equivalent of a life sentence without parole. Oftentimes, it is important that the spirit of the law not be lost in the application of the law. This is one such time. The spirit of the constitutional mandates of Miller and Graham instruct that much more is at stake in the sentencing of juveniles than merely making sure that parole is possible. 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. […]

Accordingly, Ragland’s commutation did not remove the case from the mandates of Miller. The sentence served by Ragland, as commuted, still amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Consequently, the district court properly resentenced Ragland in light of Miller. Because the new sentence was not challenged on appeal, we do not address it in any way except to reiterate that Miller requires individualized resentencing.

As I mentioned above, all seven justices agreed with this outcome. Disagreements emerged in concurrences filed by three of the justices, though. Those are worth reading, beginning on page 26 of this pdf file. Justice David Wiggins almost invited future lawsuits challenging Branstad’s commutations with this shot across the bow.

In this situation, is the Governor commuting a void sentence or sentencing the defendant for the first time in violation of the separation of powers doctrine? […]

Another observation is that the Governor’s imposition of a sentence might constitute a denial of due process-such as the right to present evidence at the sentencing stage under article I, section 9 or the right to be informed of accusations, the right to a jury trial, the right to compulsory process, and the right to counsel under article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution.  […]

My third observation is that a prisoner could also challenge a commutation that required the prisoner to waive his or her constitutional, civil, fundamental, or human rights prospectively.  […]

My final observation is that the Governor’s action may have violated article IV, section 16 of the Iowa Constitution. This provision grants the Governor commutation power, subject to regulations provided by law. Iowa Const. art. IV, § 16. The legislature has regulated the Governor’s power to commute a person’s sentence by enacting certain legislation regulating his power to commute. The Code provides that “[p]rior to the governor granting a reprieve, pardon, or commutation to an offender convicted of a violent crime, the governor shall notify a registered victim that the victim’s offender has applied for a reprieve, pardon, or commutation.” Iowa Code § 915.19 (2013). The Code also provides a specific procedure the Governor must follow to commute the sentence of a person who receives a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Id. § 902.2. This procedure involves referring the matter to the Iowa Board of Parole before the Governor can commute. Id. The record is devoid of any evidence showing the Governor followed any of these legislative enactments.

However, we need not reach these important constitutional issues today and leave them for another day.

Justice Edward Mansfield wasn’t having any of it in his special concurrence, beginning on page 29. He observed that the governor has the power to commute sentences at any time after a conviction, and that no court had removed Ragland’s life without parole sentence at the time of Branstad’s commutations.

Also, I do not believe the Governor’s reasons for granting commutation are subject to judicial scrutiny. From the perspective of the courts, it matters not whether the Governor’s motivation was to preserve the legislature’s previous sentencing scheme as much as possible, or to show leniency toward Ragland.

Section 16 makes this clear. It provides that the Governor “shall report to the general assembly . . . each case of reprieve, commutation, or pardon granted, and the reasons therefor.” Iowa Const. art. IV, § 16. By expressly providing that the Governor would provide his reasons to the legislature, this tells me our framers intended that any check on the Governor’s clemency authority would be in the political process. Article III, section 16 provides an analogue. It states that when the Governor vetoes legislation, he or she shall return it to the legislature “with his [or her] objections.” Generally speaking, the objections are for political purposes, for the benefit of the legislature, not to enable judicial review. The same is true with the reasons for commutation that are also provided to the legislature under our constitution.

Mansfield pointed to other state rulings that affirmed governors’ commutations to life without parole sentences after the death penalty had been ruled unconstitutional. He disagreed with Wiggins’ interpretation of state law, saying Iowa code allows prisoners to apply for commutations but “does not appear to limit the Governor’s authority to grant commutations.”

Justice Thomas Waterman, like Mansfied a Branstad appointee in 2011, joined Mansfield’s special concurrence.

The third Branstad appointee from 2011, Bruce Zager, filed his own concurrence, which begins on page 29. He would affirm the district court’s resentencing of Ragland but for different reasons than those Cady outlined in the majority ruling.  He agrees that having been convicted of a crime committed when he was a juvenile, Ragland deserved an “individualized assessment” at his sentencing hearing, “taking into consideration the appropriate factors, including age and other circumstances surrounding the crime.”

Zager was persuaded by Wiggins, at least in part:

I agree that the Governor has the constitutional authority to commute sentences to life without parole for a term of years, as he did here. However, as noted by Justice Wiggins in his concurring opinion, the commutation power is not without limitation.

I believe the Governor exceeded his constitutional authority when he attempted to remove Ragland’s ability to earn good time credit against this commuted sentence, as authorized by statute. See Iowa Code § 903A.2 (2013). Awarding earned good time credit would have allowed for the possibility of Ragland’s release after forty-two and one-half years, which I would not consider to be the functional equivalent of LWOP [life without parole]. Under these circumstances, and for the reasons set forth in Justice Wiggins’s concurring opinion, the district court was correct in refusing to give effect to the Governor’s attempt to commute Ragland’s sentence. The district court was correct in then applying Miller in this case, and I would affirm Ragland’s sentence.

None of these arguments are likely to influence Branstad. Judging from his spokesman’s comments to the Des Moines Register, he will focus on finding ways to keep all of these convicts in prison longer.

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. […]

“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.”

Leaving aside that skirmish over the governor’s commutation power, the Iowa Supreme Court justices largely agreed in the Ragland case. The other two cases decided last week divided the court 4-3.

Justice Brent Appel wrote the majority rulings in both State v. Null (pdf) and State v. Pearson (pdf).

At age 16, Denem Null shot and killed a man during a robbery. He was initially charged with first-degree murder but pled guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery to avoid a mandatory life without parole sentence.

At Null’s sentencing hearing, the court stated that it had no discretion in imposing the fifty-year sentence for second-degree murder or the twenty-five-year sentence for first-degree robbery, but that it did have discretion to determine whether the sentences should run concurrently or consecutively.

Concurrent sentences would allow Null to become eligible for parole sooner, but the judge ordered consecutive sentences, meaning 75 years in prison with the possibility of parole only after Null had completed at least 70 percent of the sentences (52.5 years).

Null’s attorney did raise the issue of his client’s age and difficult childhood during the sentencing hearing, so the judge had a chance to consider the individual circumstances of the case.

Null’s lawsuit challenged his convictions, claiming he had inadequate representation, but the Iowa Supreme Court rejected those arguments and affirmed his convictions.

The justices split over Null’s challenge to the length of his sentences. Appel summarized the main arguments on both sides (excerpts from pp 12-14):

Null argues his 52.5-year mandatory minimum sentence for crimes committed when he was sixteen years old amounts to a de facto life sentence in violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. In support of his position, Null cites the trilogy of recent United States Supreme Court decisions, which, in addition to Miller, includes Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 161 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2005), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010). Null recognizes his sentence is not formally a life sentence, but argues his potential release after serving 52.5 years is essentially the equivalent of a life sentence. In support of his claim that his long prison term amounts to a life sentence, he cites a National Vital Statistics Report indicating the life expectancy of a twenty-year-old black male is 51.7 years. In any event, Null argues that even if he were to live to be paroled, release when he is elderly and infirm to die on the streets after spending all of his adult years in prison would be little, if at all, better than dying in prison.

In the alternative, Null asks us to find his sentence unlawful under the cruel and unusual punishment provision of article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. […]

Null also challenges the decision of the district court to run his fifty-year sentence for second-degree murder and his twenty-five-year sentence for first-degree robbery consecutively rather than concurrently. […]

The State responds by urging us to defer to legislative judgments on the matter of punishment. It notes the holdings in Graham and Miller are limited to “juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole,” […] and that, as a result, these cases have no applicability to Null who received a sentence for a term of years. […] Using the gross proportionality formulation of these cases, the State asserts Null’s sentence falls far short of the required showing in these cruel and unusual punishment cases.

On the question of running the sentences consecutively rather than concurrently, the State argues the district court is entitled to broad discretion. […] The State observes that the district court ran the sentences consecutively based upon the history and characteristics of the defendant, including his age, prior interventions, lack of remorse, and the facts of the crime, and that the trial court’s imposition of consecutive sentences cannot be considered an abuse of discretion.

On pages 15 to 49 of the decision, Appel discusses the changing jurisprudence in Iowa, other state and federal courts with respect to treatment of juveniles and what is considered cruel and unusual punishment. The majority applied those principles to Null’s case beginning on page 49.

As indicated above, Null challenges his sentence under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. In this case, Null urges that we take the principles of Miller and apply them under the facts of this case under the Iowa Constitution. […] As explained at length below, we are persuaded that Miller’s principles are sound and should be applied in this case. As in Bruegger [a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling], we reach our conclusion independently under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution.

Appel pre-empts some arguments against this reasoning.

First, we note that Miller emphasizes that nothing said in Roper, Graham, or Miller is “crime-specific.” […] Certainly the notions that juveniles have less-developed judgment, that juveniles are more susceptible to peer pressure, and that juveniles’ characters are not fully formed applies to this and any other case involving a juvenile defendant. Thus, the notions in Roper, Graham, and Miller that “children are different” and that they are categorically less culpable than adult offenders apply as fully in this case as in any other. […]

Second, we believe that while a minimum of 52.5 years imprisonment is not technically a life-without-parole sentence, such a lengthy sentence imposed on a juvenile is sufficient to trigger Miller-type protections. Even if lesser sentences than life without parole might be less problematic, we do not regard the juvenile’s potential future release in his or her late sixties after a half century of incarceration sufficient to escape the rationales of Graham or Miller. The prospect of geriatric release, if one is to be afforded the opportunity for release at all, does not provide a “meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate the “maturity and rehabilitation” required to obtain release and reenter society as required by Graham.  […]

We recognize that the evidence in this case does not clearly establish that Null’s prison term is beyond his life expectancy. […] we do not believe the determination of whether the principles of Miller or Graham apply in a given case should turn on the niceties of epidemiology, genetic analysis, or actuarial sciences in determining precise mortality dates. In coming to this conclusion, we note the repeated emphasis of the Supreme Court in Roper, Graham, and Miller of the lessened culpability of juvenile offenders, how difficult it is to determine which juvenile offender is one of the very few that is irredeemable, and the importance of a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” […] We also note that in the flurry of legislative action that has taken place in the wake of Graham and Miller, many of the new statutes have allowed parole eligibility for juveniles sentenced to long prison terms for homicides to begin after fifteen or twenty-five years of incarceration. […]

We conclude that Miller’s principles are fully applicable to a lengthy term-of-years sentence as was imposed in this case because an offender sentenced to a lengthy term-of-years sentence should not be worse off than an offender sentenced to life in prison without parole who has the benefit of an individualized hearing under Miller. We recognize that some courts have viewed Miller more narrowly, holding that it applies only to mandatory sentences of life without parole. […]

We also recognize that some courts have held Miller does not apply where the lengthy sentence is the result of aggregate sentences.

After concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller applies to Null’s case, the majority considered

what the district court is required to do in deciding whether a juvenile defendant should be sentenced to a half century in prison. […]

We think the direction from the Supreme Court that trial courts consider everything said about youth in Roper, Graham, and Miller means more than a generalized notion of taking age into consideration as a factor in sentencing. […]

Instead, we conclude article I, section 17 [of the Iowa Constitution] requires that a district court recognize and apply the core teachings of Roper, Graham, and Miller in making sentencing decisions for long prison terms involving juveniles. […]

First, the district court must recognize that because “children are constitutionally different from adults,” they ordinarily cannot be held to the same standard of culpability as adults in criminal sentencing. […]

Second, the district court must recognize that “[j]uveniles are more capable of change than are adults” and that as a result, “their actions are less likely to be evidence of ‘irretrievably depraved character.’ ” […]

Finally, and related to the previous discussion, the district court should recognize that a lengthy prison sentence without the possibility of parole such as that involved in this case is appropriate, if at all, only in rare or uncommon cases.

The majority remanded the case to district court, ordering that the parties be allowed to present new evidence at Null’s sentencing hearing. Finally, the Iowa Supreme Court gave a strong nudge to the district court judge:

We recognize that upon remand, one of the issues the district court will need to consider is the question of whether Null’s sentences for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery will run concurrently or consecutively. Ordinarily, such a determination rests within the sound discretion of the district court. Here, however, the district court must consider whether the imposition of consecutive sentences would result in a prison term of such length that it cannot survive under the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Iowa Constitution.

Chief Justice Cady, Justice Wiggins, and Justice Daryl Hecht concurred with Appel’s decision. Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager agreed only with affirming Null’s convictions and not with vacating his prison sentence.

Waterman joined Mansfield’s separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, which begins on page 63. Mansfield made a valid point that “relevant factors relating to Null’s youth were brought to light and considered” when the district court sentenced Null.

the court did what it was supposed to do under Miller. It took into account all the mitigating evidence relating to Null’s youth, but ultimately found it was outweighed by other considerations. At sentencing, Null’s attorney argued almost all of the Miller factors, including his client’s chronological age, his lack of maturity, the absence of mentoring or a stable upbringing, and the circumstances of the offense including the extent of Null’s participation. Any Miller factors not expressly raised by Null’s counsel were clearly considered by the district court, as evidenced by its remarks at sentencing. For these reasons, I believe the sentencing here complied with Miller. […]

But even if we believe the sentence did not comply with Miller, there is a simple solution: We should just remand for the district court to apply Miller. This requires only a brief opinion [….]

The law in this case is Miller. The pages of social science and history offered by the majority do not provide additional legal standards or meaningful guidance. They are unnecessary.

If some controverted point concerning Miller comes up after resentencing, we can address it then, based on briefing by the parties. Until then, we should let the district court do its work.

Mansfield expressed concern about the “additional and unnecessary uncertainty” created by the majority opinion in this case.

My colleagues repeatedly say that “the district court must recognize” certain propositions. What does this directive mean? If it means that our trial judges must take on a certain state of mind when sentencing juveniles, how is that to be enforced? We don’t usually remand cases for judges to “recognize” things.

On pages 73 and 74, Mansfield argues that the majority did not sufficiently explain why they are relying on the Iowa Constitution and not just U.S. Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentencing.

My colleagues are not explicit. Rather, they say they are applying “the principles of Miller. . . under the Iowa Constitution.” I do not know what this means. […] This suggests my colleagues may be following something more than just Miller. But if so, they should say what it is, why they are taking this approach, and what in Iowa’s constitution justifies it.

To my knowledge, no other state supreme court has applied Miller in this way. Other courts have simply implemented Miller and said that is what they are doing.

In his separate opinion, Zager similarly argued that Miller does not apply to Null’s case, because Null was sentenced to a term of years, not life in prison.

An expansion of the Graham and Miller requirements to cases involving term-of-years sentences similar to Null’s would also lead to uncertainty and confusion.

Zager also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Null’s sentences to run consecutively rather than concurrently.

I am not an attorney, but the Null case strikes me as a very tough call. It doesn’t sound as if the district court attached a lot of weight to the defendant’s individual circumstances, but unlike the Ragland case, the judge at least heard about mitigating circumstances and had discretion in sentencing. There will always be judges who lean toward harsher sentences.

The third ruling handed down last week, State v. Pearson, was not as long as the Null decision but waded into similarly complicated waters.

Seventeen-year-old Desirae Pearson was convicted by a jury of two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of first-degree burglary for her actions at two separate homes on Thanksgiving night in 2010. The district court sentenced her to serve concurrent sentences for the convictions arising from each transaction-one count of first-degree robbery and one count of first-degree burglary-but ordered those two sentences be served consecutively. Because each first-degree robbery conviction carries a sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment subject to a seventy percent mandatory minimum, Pearson received a fifty-year sentence and will be ineligible for parole until she serves thirty-five years. Pearson argues her sentence is cruel and unusual as applied to her under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. For the reasons expressed below, we vacate Pearson’s sentence and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.

As in Null’s case, prosecutors sought consecutive sentences for Pearson, while the defendant’s attorney argued for concurrent sentences.

Pearson’s attorney acknowledged the mandatory minimums and argued Pearson should be sentenced to concurrent sentences totaling twenty-five years. Pearson’s attorney cited the United States Supreme Court’s statements that juveniles are less deserving of the most severe punishments due to their lessened culpability and that juveniles “must have some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Pearson’s attorney argued that if Pearson was released on parole after serving 17.5 years, the mandatory minimum of a twenty-five-year sentence, she would be more likely to be able to contribute to society in a meaningful way than she could if released in her fifties. […]

In sentencing Pearson to fifty years, the district court found that while her file reflected a troubled family life, a troubled history, the lack of a support structure, and negative influences, these circumstances did not justify her criminal actions.

Appel’s opinion for the majority summarizes what happened next:

After sentencing Pearson, the district court concluded by saying it did not take the sentencing of juveniles to lengthy prison terms lightly. It also expressed its hope Pearson would take advantage of the rehabilitative and educational programs offered in prison so that she could ultimately return to the community at the appropriate time.

Pearson appealed, and we transferred her case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals upheld Pearson’s sentence. The court of appeals determined Pearson’s actions fell “squarely within the well- defined parameters” of the robbery statute. The court of appeals agreed with the findings of the district court that Pearson was nearly an adult when she committed her crimes, that she had a history of assaultive behavior, and that she had failed to take advantage of rehabilitative opportunities. The court acknowledged Pearson would have to spend the majority of her life in prison, but held her sentence was not disproportionate to her crimes, finding the district court had properly considered Pearson’s age.

Although Pearson wasn’t convicted of murder or sentenced to life in prison, the majority found that the principles of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller ruling applied to her case.

Here, the district court sentenced Pearson to consecutive terms totaling thirty-five years imprisonment without the possibility of parole. We think in light of the principles articulated in Miller and Null that it should be relatively rare or uncommon that a juvenile be sentenced to a lengthy prison term without the possibility of parole for offenses like those involved in this case. Otherwise, we would be ignoring the teaching of the Roper-Graham-Miller line of cases that juveniles have less culpability than adults, that the few youth who are irredeemable are difficult to identify, and that juveniles have rehabilitation potential exceeding that of adults. […]

We have no occasion to consider whether Miller’s principles must be applied to all juvenile sentences. Instead, we need only decide that article I, section 17 requires an individualized sentencing hearing where, as here, a juvenile offender receives a minimum of thirty-five years imprisonment without the possibility of parole for these offenses and is effectively deprived of any chance of an earlier release and the possibility of leading a more normal adult life. […]

We also note that the district court here did not have the benefit of Miller or Null when it sentenced Pearson. Our review of the district court’s handling of Pearson’s sentencing convinces us the district court did not consider the principles underlying Miller. For example, the district court indicated it understood the argument that Pearson, as a young person, may lack the ability to appreciate the results of her actions, but then stated that argument “doesn’t diminish in any way the results of [her] actions.” It is true that Pearson’s youthfulness does not lessen the results of her actions insofar as the impact they had on the lives of the victims, yet under Miller and Null, a juvenile’s culpability is lessened because the juvenile is cognitively underdeveloped relative to a fully-developed adult.

Justices Hecht and Wiggins concurred in Appel’s opinion. In a separate opinion to express his agreement with the majority, Chief Justice Cady called on all judges to consider “the changing landscape of juvenile justice” when “sentencing juvenile offenders as adults.”

It may be natural to assume the stakes are simply lower regarding the latter category of crimes, but denying juveniles who commit lesser crimes the protections afforded in Miller denies them their rights under the Eighth Amendment and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution no less than denying a juvenile who commits a considerably more serious crime the very same protections.

The court’s holding is limited to the bizarre facts of this case-both Pearson’s senseless and violent, though nonhomicidal, crime spree and the district court’s approach during sentencing. After all, Pearson somehow faced more time in prison without the possibility of parole than all offenders except a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder. […]

Thus, wisely, the decision today takes a modest, incremental step, one with which I totally agree. Yet, our understanding of adolescent neuroscience and our approach to juvenile justice are rapidly evolving. Children are indeed different for the purposes of criminal sentencing.

In his dissenting opinion joined by Justices Waterman and Zager, Mansfield acknowledged that Pearson’s sentence was harsh, but observed,

The severity of this sentence is only partly related to the defendant’s age. This sentence would have been harsh even if the defendant had been legally an adult, rather than just seventeen years and three months old, at the time she went on this crime spree with her eighteen-year-old boyfriend.

Needless to say, I am not a member of the general assembly, nor am I the trial judge. I do not get to decide the proper sentence in this case. In addition, the defendant has not argued that the district court abused its sentencing discretion.8

Thus, the only question before us is whether the sentence violates the United States or Iowa Constitution because it is “cruel and unusual.” For the reasons stated herein, I agree with the court of appeals that the sentence is not so “grossly disproportionate” as to render it unconstitutional. […]

I carry no particular brief for the sentence Pearson received in this case. Although it does not exceed what the State and the two main victims requested, it is longer than I would have imposed. But the district court is surely right: It is not a life sentence.

Any fair reading of Graham and Miller requires us to acknowledge this point.

Mansfield then accused the majority of rewriting the Graham and Miller cases.

Yet it does not manage even to be consistent with today’s decision in State v. Null, __ N.W.2d __ (Iowa 2013). In Null, the majority found that a sentence of 52.5 years before eligibility for parole fell under Graham and Miller because the mere “prospect of geriatric release” was insufficient. […] Here, without adding much to what it said in Null, the court concludes that a sentence of thirty-five years before eligibility for parole falls under Graham and Miller. Pearson would be eligible for parole when in her early fifties, so the problem here is not “geriatric release,” but that Pearson has been deprived of “the possibility of leading a more normal adult life.” Thus, we now have two standards for when Graham and Miller apply. […]

Regardless of the outer limits of the majority’s rulings, it is clear the court has now transformed Miller and Graham into a platform to potentially overturn hundreds of non-LWOP prison sentences imposed on juvenile offenders in Iowa. This would be unprecedented. While some jurisdictions have concluded that Graham and Miller apply to “de facto” life sentences where the defendant will not be eligible for parole until she is at or approaching her life expectancy, no other appellate court has adopted the majority’s reading of those cases. The Iowa Supreme Court stands alone.10

As in the Null case, Mansfield argued that the majority did not adequately explain their reasoning.

To be sure, the majority includes the same escape hatch as in Null-namely, that it is applying the principles of Miller under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. While this may protect the majority from having its reasoning reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, it fails to explain why all other state courts to apply the same principles have reached a different conclusion. As noted, one of the central principles of Miller is that it applies only to the most severe penalties. Miller did not constitutionalize every sentencing proceeding whereby a juvenile is sent to prison.

Finally, Mansfield concluded that the district court’s sentence for Pearson was not “so grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed as to be unconstitutional [….].”

Zager filed a brief separate opinion noting his agreement with Mansfield’s dissent and emphasizing that he does not agree with applying Miller or Graham to juveniles who have received “lengthy term-of-years sentences, also sometimes described as de facto sentences of life without parole.”

I don’t see any logical reason for judges not to consider new research about adolescent brains when sentencing juveniles to potentially long stretches in prison. Why shouldn’t the same principles of Miller and Graham apply in cases where a life sentence is not on the table?

Commenting on the trio of Iowa Supreme Court rulings, Drake University law professor Robert Rigg told the Des Moines Register,

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.

In Rigg’s opinion, even hundreds of requests for resentencing “spread across Iowa should not strain the court system.”

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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