The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday opened the door for more than three dozen juveniles sentenced to long prison terms to appeal their sentences.
The court said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that threw out automatic life sentences for juveniles may be applied retroactively to Iowa cases. The federal high court said automatic life sentences for juveniles violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The court said states cannot automatically sentence juveniles to life and the sentences must be considered individually based on the age of the juvenile, the nature of the crime, and other factors.
After the federal court's ruling, Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the life sentences of 38 Iowa juvenile killers to 60 years before they could be eligible for parole.
Many are appealing, saying that is still too long and equates to life in prison.
Among those who appealed is Jeffrey Ragland, 44. He was sent to prison at age 17. In 1986 Ragland was with friends in a Council Bluffs parking lot when a fight broke out. Ragland's friend, Matthew Gill, struck another person, Timothy Sieff, 19, with a tire iron. Sieff died.
Gill and two other teens also present reached plea deals with prosecutors. Gill served three years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction and was released on parole.
Ragland, who said he hadn't killed anyone, refused to admit guilt as part of a plea bargain. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.
Under Branstad's executive order he couldn't apply for parole until age 77. His life expectancy is 78.
A district court judge found in a resentencing hearing that Branstad overstepped his authority in commuting the sentences. Ragland was resentenced to 25 years in prison, which made him immediately eligible for parole. The state appealed.
The Iowa Supreme Court justices declined to weigh in on whether Branstad overreached saying "we do not believe it is necessary to traipse into this constitutional thicket."
The court concluded, however, the governor's automatic commutation to a 60-year sentence is essentially a life sentence and violates the U.S. court's ruling.
"Oftentimes, it is important that the spirit of the law not be lost in the application of the law," Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the seven-man court. "This is one such time."
The ruling upholds the 25-year sentence and Ragland may now seek parole.
In making the decision, the court sets a new standard in determining that long sentences are the functional equivalent of life without parole and must be considered under the new federal court guidelines.
While Justice David Wiggins agreed with the ruling, he wrote a separate opinion that said Branstad may have violated Iowa law which requires him to notify victims before the commutation and requires him to refer the matter to the Iowa Board of Parole before initiating the commutation.
"The record is devoid of any evidence showing the governor followed any of these legislative enactments," Wiggins said. "However, we need not reach these important constitutional issues today and leave them for another day."
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said although the court struck down the 60-year mandatory minimum for juvenile murderers, "the court's decision today in no way affects the governor's constitutional responsibility for executive clemency, including commutation of life sentences," he said. "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. Victims must never be re-victimized and can never be forgotten from the process."
He said the governor and lieutenant governor will work with the Legislature "to find a way to keep dangerous juvenile murderers off the streets and keep Iowans safe."
In two other cases involving juveniles, the court ordered new sentencing hearings applying the federal court's principles to sentences that are not life but lengthy.
In the case of Denem Null, Justice Brent Appel wrote for a majority of the court: "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 re-enter society...."
The court vacated Null's sentence and sent back to the district court judge for a new hearing.
Null, who is now 20, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery for the 2010 shooting of Kevin Bell during a robbery at Bell's apartment. Null was sentenced to 75 years with the mandated requirement that he serve at least 52 years. That meant he would be eligible for parole until age 69. His life expectancy is 51 years.
The second case involves Desirae Pearson, who was 17 when she was convicted of two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of first-degree burglary on May 4, 2011.
She was sentenced in July 2011 to 50 years in prison with a requirement to serve 35 years before she could apply for parole.
Justice Edward Mansfield, in a strongly worded dissent, said the majority opinion could open the door for resentencing for as many as 425 inmates serving time in Iowa prisons for offenses committed before age of 18. Most are serving lengthy sentences.
"We can now look forward to a flurry of new proceedings as the state, defense attorneys, and our own judicial system sort through the unresolved issues raised by the majority opinion," he wrote.
He said he would have upheld Pearson's sentence. He was joined by justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager.