In a controversial reaction to a recent Supreme Court ruling declaring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of the 38 Iowa juvenile who had been sentenced to life without parole to a sentence requiring a mandatory 60 years in prison before being considered for parole. All 38 had been tried as adults and convicted of first-degree murder committed when they were under 18.
"During this process, the victims are all too often forgotten by our justice system, and are forced to relive 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 the victims, their loved ones' memories, and to protect the safety of all Iowans."
In Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling required that all pertinent factors – such as age and home environment – be considered before such a sentence is imposed. The governor's action short-circuits the requirement that the sentencing court consider all the factors.
"The ruling said the sentences should be individualized," said Drake Law School professor Gordon Allen, adding that applying a blanket 60-year flat sentence to the whole group does not meet that standard.
Allen is representing two of the juveniles. Christine Marie Lockheart's life sentence was recently overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. Yvette Louisell's appeal was filed in June 2012. Both were convicted of first-degree murder committed when they were 17 years old.
Allen's colleague Robert Rigg called the Branstad's move "a political reaction to a legal problem" noting that it would probably complicate the juveniles' appeals seeking resentencing.
Branstad defends the commutations, saying that governors have broad discretionary powers over executive clemency and that he reviewed the Supreme Court's decision and consulted with the state attorney general's office, prosecutors and victims' families before making the move.
"I don't agree with the [Supreme Court's] decision" said Branstad. "1 think it's cruel and unusual punishment for what was done ... The victim and their families are put through agony."
Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller said his office was "prepared to defend the Governor's action in court and any legal matter surrounding it."
According to Assistant Attorney General Kevin Omelik, who is over criminal appeals at the attorney general's office, the commutations will not prevent the juveniles from appealing citing the illegal sentencing doctrine the Supreme Court announced, but may require them to modify their legal arguments.
"According to Miller v. Alabama, you can't sentence a juvenile to life without parole, but we don't know about (a sentence) for life with parole,' said Omelik. "There are many unanswered questions at this point."
Actually, this doesn't seem to be as big of a mystery as Omelik maintains. In most jurisdictions, "life" is considered the equivalent of sixty years. Thus, a sentence of life without consideration for parole for sixty years is still a form of "life without parole." Certainly, many teenagers subjected to such a sentence would not live to see their first parole review. Therefore, it is likely just as unconstitutional as the sentence the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.
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