Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Iowa courts struggling with application of U.S. Supreme Court ruling
DAVENPORT — The walk to the third floor of the Scott County Courthouse is a study in stark contrasts. From the first push from the outside, through a door adorned with black text on white paper and down marble hallways the color of eggshell flecked with black, there is no denying that this is a place of light and dark, right and wrong.
Although the courtroom itself, which is filled with rich wood tones, should be warm, its lack of comfort startles. High-backed and hard church-like pews are reluctantly filled with observers. A thigh-high fence and gate separate the court actors from those watching. On either side of the room several unidentified but obviously important starched men stand guard in oil paintings. At any moment, it seems, one might produce a ruler or leather strap to smack the backs of offending hands.
The pain and frustration radiating from those sitting silently on both sides of the hard pews swirls hotly around the room. It might as well be 1993, the year this particular case began.
On one side of the courtroom sit the friends and family of Jason Means, a 34-year-old inmate at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. On the other side are the friends and family of Michelle Jensen, a Davenport teen who died in August 1993 from a single shotgun blast to her head.
In 1994, when Means and five additional teens were found guilty of crimes in connection with Jensen’s death, both sides believed most of the legal uncertainty was behind them. Means, then 17, was found guilty of first degree kidnapping, first degree robbery, second degree murder, criminal gang participation, conspiracy to commit robbery and unauthorized possession of an offensive weapon. In Iowa, a conviction on the kidnapping charge alone mandated a prison sentence of life without parole.
Two other young men — one 17 and the other 18 — were also given prison sentences of life without parole. The three remaining teens, who testified for the prosecution, were given lesser sentences. Two have since been given parole, but have committed subsequent crimes that have placed them back behind bars.
Although there was an appeal launched by Means’ legal counsel shortly after his sentencing, it was always considered to be a long shot.
“After a certain amount of time, you resign yourself to the fact that this is the way it is going to be — that the rest of your son’s life will be spent in prison,” Cheryl Clark, Means’ mother, said in an interview with The Iowa Independent.
But a May 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, appears to have mandated a different fate for Means and Tony Hoeck, the other 17-year-old sentenced to life without parole.
“I saw a news item about the court decision on the internet,” said Means’ uncle Brad Cook, “and I immediately called Cheryl. I thought this was it — that there finally might be some hope. I thought it was a miracle, and it was made all the more special because the decision was dated on Jason’s 34th birthday. It was hope.”
The court found that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses is a violation of the “cruel and unusual” clause of the Eighth Amendment.
“A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity,” the court said in its ruling. “Incapacitation cannot override all other considerations, lest the Eighth Amendment’s rule against disproportionate sentences by a nullity.”
The court specifically stated that while such a juvenile offender is not given a “guarantee to eventual freedom,” the law does require the state to provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
Slow wheels of justice
While at first glance the Graham decision may appear as open-and-shut on matters involving those convicted of non-homicide offenses as juveniles, most cases remain tied up in the courts as states interpret and apply the ruling.
According to the Graham decision, there were 129 such juvenile offenders serving throughout the U.S. Of those, 77 were incarcerated in Florida, the remaining 52 scattered across 10 states. There are an estimated eight such cases in Iowa, including one that was decided in December 2010 by the Iowa Supreme Court.
It was, however, the Means’ case that paved the way for the Iowa challenges as well as challenges in other states. Means, represented by Davenport attorney Angela Fritz Reyes, brought a motion of illegal sentencing before U.S. District Court in Scott County just days following the High Court decision. After requesting and reviewing a supplemental brief on the retroactive application of Graham, U.S. District Court Judge Gary D. McKenrick ruled that the case was a new rule of substantive law that should be applied to previous cases and, more specifically, should be applied to Means’ 1994 conviction.
In September 2010, McKenrick struck the portion of Means’ sentence that prohibited the opportunity for parole, leaving Means to “serve the remainder of his natural life in the custody of the director of the department of corrections, however the defendant shall be subject to parole consideration.”
According to information provided by Reyes in court last week during a continuation of the motion on illegal sentencing, despite the judge’s order Means continues to be denied an opportunity to appear before the parole board or be provided a future date for such a hearing. McKenrick agreed to send an additional copy of his earlier order to the Department of Corrections, but otherwise denied issues brought by Reyes related to the 1994 sentencing of Means. The attorney indicated she would be appealing, a process that will likely culminate in another court hearing in several more months.
State lawmakers are also considering their own proposals to bring the Iowa Code in line with the Graham ruling, but even if such a proposal becomes law, it is unlikely that it could be applied to the Means’ case or other old cases already before the court. The law doesn’t allow courts to revisit sentences if the end result would be an increase in the severity of the sentence. As it stands now, with the prohibition of parole removed, the sentences faced would be reduced to life with an immediate eligibility of parole — which is, in all likelihood, far less than what would codified for future cases.
Punishment vs. maturity
“It would mean a great deal for Jason to have that hearing,” his mother, Cheryl Clark, said. “He should have an opportunity to stand before the parole board and present himself — how he has changed and what type of a person he is now.”
Steve Clark, Jason’s step-father, added that “he’s not the same person now that he was at 17.”
Of course, from the family’s perspective, getting a hearing before the parole board is only the first step. They want Means released on parole, able to once again join society and be productive. If the standards set forth in the Graham ruling guide the decisions facing the parole board, the family believes Means will have a true opportunity to be released. They praise the initiative he’s shown for years, long before anyone had hoped that he might one day be eligible for a parole hearing.
“He’s not been a trouble-maker in jail,” Cook said. “He’s studied and worked, and completed everything he possibly can while in prison. When the court talks about someone being able to ‘demonstrate growth and maturity,’ that is what Jason has done and is doing.”
Outside of the courtroom, however, Cheryl Dittmer continues to grip a framed photograph of her late daughter Michelle so hard that her knuckles match the marble floor. Since 2008, she’s watched and protested as three of the teens convicted in connection with her daughter’s murder have been paroled. She isn’t ready to witness another.
“I agree with the premise of Graham,” Dittmer told The Iowa Independent after the hearing. “I believe that there should be an opportunity for a juvenile to show they’ve grown and changed — but not in this case.”
This is part one of a series on the Supreme Court’s Graham v. Florida ruling and its impact on Iowa. Part two is available here.