The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a Cedar Rapids man’s conviction for killing a another during a robbery but tossed out his 75-year prison sentence because he was 16 years old at the time and it violates the cruel and unusual punishment provision in the Eighth Amendment and Iowa Constitution.
Denem Null, 20, of Cedar Rapids, was convicted of the 2010 slaying of Kevin Bell, 26, who Null shot and killed during a drug robbery.
Null pleaded to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 75 years in prison. He received a 50-year prison term for murder consecutively, rather than concurrently, with a 25-year term for robbery. He would have to serve 52 years before being eligible for parole.
The court upheld Null’s conviction, but vacated his 75-year sentence and sent it back to district court for resentencing.
Mark Meyer, appellant attorney for Null, didn’t return a message left Friday.
NEW RULE ON LIFE SENTENCES
This is one of the first rulings the Iowa court has made regarding the 2012 Miller decision, which found mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional, said Guy Cook, president of Iowa State Bar Association and attorney with Grefe and Sidney in Des Moines.
The court also ruled on two other appeals, besides the Null case, that would allow hundreds of juveniles convicted of felonies to ask for their sentences to be reviewed.
One of those rulings concerned Gov. Terry Branstad’s decision, in reaction to the Miller ruling, to impose life sentences with parole after a defendant serves 60 years. According to the court, the governor may have went beyond his authority in his action last year. There are 38 juveniles in prison who were sentenced to life in prison without parole. Many have pending motions to review their sentencings.
Cook said while the court acknowledged that 52 years wasn’t technically life without parole, Null “is likely to die in prison.” The justices point out that 6th Judicial District Court Judge Ian Thornhill didn’t have the benefit of the Miller decision at the time, but now the sentence should be reconsidered according to the law, which recognizes the fundamental differences between juveniles and adults, and that juveniles should be treated different regarding sentencing.
The Miller ruling directs sentencing judges to consider each juvenile’s home life and background, that “juveniles are more capable of change than adults” and lengthy sentences for juveniles without parole should be in rare or uncommon cases.
According to the Null ruling, the court recognized the district court will have to reconsider whether the sentences should be run consecutively or concurrently, but cautioned the court to consider if running the sentences consecutively would result in a lengthy prison time that violates the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Iowa Constitution.
Cook said this ruling shows an ideology division in the court. The three associate justices, Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager, who dissented the majority’s opinion, are all Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointments. The more liberal justices favored the ban.
The dissenting justices said Thornhill considered differences between juveniles and adult offenders and considered Null’s background, Cook said.
“They take issue with how the federal constitution is applied under the Iowa Constitution,” Cook said. “He appears to be saying the majority is (incorrectly) applying the U.S. constitutional principles and standards to the Iowa State Constitution, which he suggests will lead to confusion about the scope of the ruling.”
According to the ruling, Mansfield questions why the majority brings in the Iowa Constitution without explaining it and whether it intends to not adhere to the Miller ruling.
“I fear this strange statement will lead to confusion among lawyers and judges,” Mansfield said. “Instead, we should be direct and clear about whether we are requiring something that Miller doesn’t require.”