Appeals court orders third sentencing for Cedar Rapids killer

Denum Null was 16 when he robbed and shot a man, serving 75 years

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The Iowa Court of Appeals vacated part of a sentencing Wednesday for a Cedar Rapids man convicted at age 16 of robbing and killing a man and twice handed 75-year prison terms.

The court ruled that the district judge had failed to explain last year why he resentenced Denum Null, now 23, to the same 75-year prison term he had been handed in 2011 — except for dropping the mandatory minimum term before being eligible for parole.

Null was convicted of robbing and killing Kevin Bell, 26, of Cedar Rapids in 2010. He pleaded to first-degree robbery and second-degree murder.

In an appeal, Null said the back-to-back sentences of 25 and 50 years on each charge was an abuse of discretion and was cruel and unusual according to the Iowa Constitution. He also asked the court to interpret an Iowa law that limits the deadline for reconsidering felony sentences.

The court declined to dissect the Iowa law, which allows a district court to reconsider a felony sentence and “reaffirm it or substitute it for any sentence permitted by law” for one year after a convict begins to serve a sentence.

Null argued the limitation doesn’t apply to juveniles, so the district court could reconsider his sentence at any time.

The court, however, stated it is bound by the “plain meaning of the words and the Legislature’s intent.”

Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill said last year during the resentencing that he considered the factors required by a 2012 ruling that banned life sentences for juveniles and made mandatory minimums unconstitutional. Thornhill said a sentencing judge has discretion as long as he or she has considered those factors.

The appeals court agreed that Thornhill considered each of the factors, and that it couldn’t say it was an abuse of his discretion.

But since Null was resentenced last year, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that a district court judge is now required to “explicitly state the reasons” for ordering consecutive sentences.

The court said Thornhill “simply stated” the sentences were to be served consecutively, without providing an explanation in writing or in court. The appeals court directed the district judge to determine whether the sentences should be run consecutively or concurrently and provide reasons for his decisions.

Gabriel Taylor, also convicted at age 17, and Johven Lee, who was 21 at the time, pleaded to lesser charges and both are serving prison terms.

They admitted they went with Null to rob Bell, but it was Null who brought a gun and shot Bell in the head.

Null said at his resentencing hearing that he didn’t intend to shoot Bell and that there wasn’t a plan to rob or kill anyone.

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