Attorneys for some inmates serving life sentences in Iowa prisons are keeping an eye on a case before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme court have ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” and are unconstitutional. So far, in Iowa, 21 individuals who were sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison for crimes committed as teens have been resentenced — usually to life with the possibility of parole.
Now, Story County Judge James Ellefson has broken that pattern for one-time teen offender Yvette Louisell. Louisell, now 43-years-old, was sentenced for the stabbing death of a disabled Ames man back in 1988 when she was 17. Ellefson took the unusual step of resentencing Louisell to 25 years with credit for time served, essentially granting her parole. Corwith Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, is upset with the judge’s decision. “That court was just reaching out in thin air and imposing a 25 year sentence,” Ritchie said. “There’s nothing in the current statute, as it stands, that provides for that.”
Louisell’s parole is on hold while the Iowa Attorney General’s office appeals the case to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court has heard oral arguments and could rule at any time. In the meantime, the county attorneys want the legislature to come up with new sentencing options for teen offenders.
Teresa Ellickson recently testified at a legislative hearing on the matter. Back in 2002, Ellickson’s brother Greg Walls was brutally killed in a robbery gone bad after he delivered a pizza to a Marion apartment. David Keegan, then 17-years-old, was convicted in adult court and sentenced to life in prison without parole. “I felt relieved when the sentence came down because I felt like we were done with the judicial process and he would be in jail forever,” Ellickson said. But, she says hearing Keegan might be eligible for parole sent her into a tailspin.
House Judiciary committee chair, Republican Chip Baltimore, says lawmakers have tried for several years to come up with new sentencing guidelines for teen offenders who previously would’ve been sentenced to life in prison. “You know, how many years must a juvenile, serve short of life, before they’re eligible for parole? We simply could not reach agreement on that,” Baltimore said.
Gordon Allen is the attorney for Yvette Louisell. He has asked the Story County Judge to correct what is in effect an illegal sentence for Louisell. “In the situation where the legislature has refused to act, in the situation where the Board of Parole has not provided a meaningful and realistic opportunity, and since we have a factual finding that she is rehabilitated and is not a security risk, why is she still incarcerated?” Allen said.
Parole board members don’t comment on cases and the Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to be interviewed. But, their case maintains that when the judge bypassed the parole board, that violates the separation of powers for the three branches of government. However the court rules in the Louisell case, it can’t be appealed. The case involves the Iowa Constitution, so the Iowa Supreme Court has the final word.
By Joyce Russell, Iowa Public Radio