Branstad commutes life sentences for 38 Iowa juvenile murderers

Governor's action in response to recent Supreme Court decision; offenders will serve 60-year terms

Governor Terry Branstad sits down for a one on one interview with the Gazette's James Lynch in the KCRG studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, July 16, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)
Governor Terry Branstad sits down for a one on one interview with the Gazette's James Lynch in the KCRG studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, July 16, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)

Two law professors say Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s action Monday to commute life sentences for 38 offenders who committed their crimes as minors conflicts with last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue.

Branstad ordered each of the offenders to instead serve a mandatory 60 years before being considered for parole.

“During this process, the victims are all too often forgotten by our justice system, and are forced to relive the pain of the tragedies,” Branstad said during a news conference. “These victims have had their loves 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.”

The 38 inmates all were tried as adults and convicted of first-degree murder for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. The state’s mandatory sentence for such a conviction is life without parole.

But the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against excessive sanctions by the government. Instead, justices ruled, the sentencing court must consider all pertinent factors, including age and home environment.

The law professors don’t dispute the governor’s authority to commute sentences, but in this matter they said his action isn’t in compliance with the high court’s ruling.

Drake University Law School professor Gordon Allen said that while he appreciates Branstad’s effort, “The ruling said the sentencings should be individualized,” and applying a blanket 60-year term to the entire group doesn’t meet that standard.

Colleague Robert Rigg, meanwhile, said the move seems to be “a political reaction to a legal problem” that will likely complicate the offenders’ appeals for resentencings.

Allen is representing two of the juvenile offenders in those appeals. Christine Marie Lockheart and Yvette Louisell were both convicted of first-degree murder at 17. Lockheart’s life sentence was recently overturned by the Iowa Court of Appeals. She and her boyfriend were convicted in Scott County of stabbing to death a retired Davenport bus driver in 1985.

Louisell, an Iowa State University student, stabbed Keith Stillwell, a paraplegic, to death in his home and took his wallet in 1987. Allen filed Louisell’s appeal last month.

Branstad told The Gazette on Monday that governors have broad discretionary power regarding executive clemency and that he carefully reviewed the court’s ruling before taking this action. He consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, victims’ families and county prosecutors.

“I didn’t agree with the (court’s) decision,” Branstad said. “I 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 in a statement that his office is “prepared to defend the Governor’s action in court and any legal matters surrounding it.

“The state needs to do all it can within the confines of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to help protect public safety,” Miller added.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin Cmelik, the office’s director of criminal appeals, said Branstad’s action won’t prevent offenders from filing appeals under the illegal sentencing doctrine, but their arguments may have to change.

“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,” Cmelik said. “There are many unanswered questions at this point.”



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