CEDAR RAPIDS — Two men serving life in prison without parole for murders they committed as 17-year-olds are the latest Iowa inmates to ask for their sentences to be corrected based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
David Keegan, 28, of Marion, and Jose Ruesga, 37, of Polk County, were both convicted in Linn County of first-degree murder. They filed motions Wednesday claiming their sentences are illegal according to this summer’s Supreme Court ruling that bans life sentences without parole for juveniles. The court found that sentences without parole for offenders who committed their crimes as minors violated the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
After the ruling, Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of all affected Iowa inmates to a mandatory 60 years in prison before they could become eligible for parole.
Keegan’s and Ruesga’s motions also claim that action violates the principle of separation of powers by creating a criminal sentence that didn’t exist and wasn’t enacted by the Legislature. It interferes as well with the task of the Iowa Board of Parole, they argue, which was created by the Legislature and determines parole or work release for offenders.
The motions contend that the 60-year minimum from Branstad, given the life expectancy of offenders, is basically a life sentence and doesn’t allow for individualized sentencing as required in the Supreme Court ruling. The justices said the sentencing judge must consider all pertinent factors, including age, education, employment, life experiences and home environment.
Keegan was convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder and second-degree robbery. He and a co-defendant killed a pizza delivery driver at his Marion apartment and took the driver’s money and car.
Ruesga, whose case was transferred from Polk County on a change of venue, was convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder. He’d beaten his girlfriend’s son over a period of 10 days in 1992; the boy suffered severe head injuries, and the murder charge was filed after he died five years later of complications.
Chief Public Defender Michael Adams of the Special Defense Unit in Des Moines said Thursday that several other motions have been filed around the state regarding juvenile life sentences. He didn’t know an exact number.
Jeffrey Ragland, who was 17 when he killed 19-year-old Timothy Sieff in 1986 in Council Bluffs, is the first defendant to see results from such a filing. He was resentenced in August in Pottawattamie County to life with parole, Adams said, and his fate is now up to the parole board.
Fourth District Judge Timothy O’Grady said during Ragland’s hearing that a life sentence without parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment, according to SouthwestIowaNews.com.
O’Grady said the commutation Branstad issued doesn’t fit with the intent of Iowa law, which says a person younger than 18 who commits a Class A felony is eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison.