Iowa Supreme Court: No life sentences without parole for convicted juvenile killers

The ruling was made in an appeal filed by a man who killed his grandparents when he was 17 years old.
By Doug G. Ware  |  May 27, 2016 at 3:23 PM
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DES MOINES, Iowa, May 27 (UPI) -- The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that no convicted killers under the age of 18 should be sentenced to life in prison without parole because such lengthy punishment for minors violates the state constitution.

In the 4-3 split decision, the majority wrote that life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, banned by both the state and U.S. constitutions.

The ruling was made in the case of Iowa v. Isaiah Richard Sweet, a man sentenced to life without parole for killing his grandparents when he was 17 years old in May 2012.

"In this case, we consider[ed] whether a juvenile who committed first degree murder may be committed to life in prison without the possibility of parole," the high court wrote in its opinion.

The district court sentenced Sweet to life without parole in 2013 based on several factors -- including the fact that he was 17 years and three months old, nine months shy of being a legal adult. The court said it also considered Sweet to be a danger to society.

Life without parole is rarely given to juvenile offenders, but the district court ruled that Sweet's crime is one where such punishment is warranted, given its premeditation and callous nature.

Upon review, though, the Supreme Court supported the defendant on two arguments -- that the sentencing parameters the district court used in 2013 were unconstitutional, and that life without parole for juveniles categorically violates both the Iowa Constitution and U.S. Constitution.

The court cited a Florida case, among others, that found it is impossible to determine the future behavior of juvenile offenders -- and ruled because that is so, barring rehabilitation is unlawful.

Because Sweet's appeal doesn't expressly say which constitution the conviction violates, the high court cited numerous cases, state and federal, to support its rejection of the man's life sentence -- but ultimately cited the state's constitution as its main reason for doing so.

"We conclude a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. The sentence imposed by the district court is reversed," the Iowa Supreme Court decision states.

In issuing the ruling, the court ordered the district court to re-sentence Sweet consistent with the new decision.

Justice Edward Mansfield, one of the three who voted to deny the appeal, expressed disapproval in his dissent.

"I would affirm the life without-parole sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him," he wrote. "I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient. More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence -- especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year."

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