Iowa Supreme Court bans life without parole for teen killers

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Juveniles who commit even the most heinous murders must someday have the chance to earn their release from prison, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court banned judges from imposing sentences of life-without-parole on offenders who are under 18 when they commit murders, saying the state’s harshest sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution.

Judges are unable to predict which youthful offenders have reliable prospects for turning their lives around, and determinations about whether they can be released should be made later by the Iowa Board of Parole, Justice Brent Appel wrote for the 4-3 majority.

Iowa joins a growing list of states to categorically ban the sentence as an option for juvenile offenders. But the vast majority have done so through legislation, not judicial mandate.

Justices ruled in the case of Isaiah Sweet, who was 17 when he shot his unsuspecting grandparents to death in their Manchester living room in 2012. He then began to sell off their belongings — showing a friend a television a few feet from the bodies — and partied with friends in the college town of Iowa City. Relatives found the dead couple when they came to visit for Mother’s Day, and Sweet was captured a day later following a manhunt.

Sweet, a rebellious high school dropout with above-average intelligence, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. His defense asked for a chance at parole after 25 years, citing an expert who claimed he might have a 75 percent chance of rehabilitating. But Judge Michael Shubatt sentenced him to life without parole, saying he was a cold-blooded murderer who would always pose a public safety threat. “He’s extremely dangerous,” Shubatt said.

Friday’s ruling orders a new sentencing for Sweet. About a dozen other inmates who were 17 or under when they committed murders are awaiting new sentences and life-without-parole will no longer be an option for them.

Appel wrote that the ruling doesn’t guarantee parole for anyone, saying offenders “who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.” Those determinations, however, must be made by parole officials, not judges.

“The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt ... after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available,” Appel wrote.

Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said the court was wrong to eliminate a sentencing option that had been overwhelmingly reauthorized by lawmakers last year. He said Shubatt appropriately used his discretion to sentence Sweet to life given the planning that went into the murders, included his decision to wear earmuffs to protect his own hearing when he fired his grandfather’s assault rifle.

“One can fairly say that Sweet murdered the two people who rescued him,” Mansfield said, noting that his grandparents had given Sweet a stable home after raising him since age 4.

States have been forced to rethink their punishments for teenage criminals in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court abolished automatic life sentences for juveniles in 2012, saying judges must consider each offender’s ability to be rehabilitated. The court kept the door open for judges to impose life-without-parole sentences for the rare offender whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.”

Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law last year that retained the sentence as an option that judges could impose on juvenile killers. Critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union had warned the law was likely unconstitutional.

Iowa is now the 19th state to ban life without parole sentences for juveniles, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group. But it’s only the second, after Massachusetts, to do so through its Supreme Court based on the state constitution, said Shellie Knipfer, an assistant appellate defender who represented Sweet.

“It’s appropriate in light of the nature of juveniles and their continued development,” she said. “The burden will still be upon the offender to show that they are rehabilitated at some later date.”