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State v. Louisell

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 26, 2015

STATE OF IOWA, Appellant,

Page 591

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Story County, James C. Ellefson, Judge. The State appeals the sentence imposed on a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder, contending the district court lacks authority to impose it.


Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Darrel L. Mullins, Assistant Attorney General, and Stephen H. Holmes, County Attorney, for appellant.

Gordon E. Allen, Johnston, and Matthew L. Shimanovsky (until withdrawal), Urbandale, for appellee.

Rita Bettis and Randall C. Wilson, Des Moines, and Ezekiel R. Edwards and Steven M. Watt, New York, New York, for amici curiae ACLU of Iowa and ACLU Foundation.

HECHT, Justice. All justices concur except Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager, JJ., who concur in part and dissent in part.


Page 592

HECHT, Justice.

Recent decisions of this court have explored the constitutionality of criminal sentences for juvenile offenders. See generally State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378 (Iowa 2014); State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa 2013); State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88 (Iowa 2013); State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013). Today we consider the nature and extent of a court's discretion in resentencing a juvenile offender convicted of a murder committed in 1987. Because we conclude the district court lacked authority to impose a determinate sentence of twenty-five years, but did have authority to impose a sentence of life in prison with eligibility for parole, we vacate the sentence and remand with instructions.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In 1988, a jury convicted Yvette Louisell of first-degree murder, stemming from the 1987 stabbing death of Keith Stilwell. At the time she committed the crime, Louisell was seventeen years and five months old and was a student at Iowa State University (ISU).

Louisell's chaotic family background and home environment heavily influenced and shaped the seventeen-year-old prior to the homicide. Louisell's mother suffered from mental illness, and her father was often absent from the family home. When he was present, he and Louisell's mother were often violent with one another; Louisell's first memory is of her parents fighting. At age three, Louisell ingested LSD she found in the house--not knowing what it was--and experienced hallucinations. At age four, Louisell's mother left the home, and soon after that, Louisell's parents

Page 593

divorced. During the next few years, Louisell moved across state lines several different times and was shuttled between homes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio. Eventually, Louisell's grandmother became her legal guardian and primary parental figure. Louisell attended nine different schools and never attended the same school for two consecutive years until her junior and senior years of high school in Michigan. Yet despite these difficult circumstances, Louisell participated in programs for gifted students and even skipped a grade in elementary school.

Unfortunately, the adversity Louisell faced throughout her childhood did not dissipate once she reached high school and obtained some locational stability. Her father remarried, but did not become more supportive. On one particular occasion, Louisell watched her stepmother chase her father with a knife and became so afraid of further violence that she hid all the other knives in the house. Additionally, because she was younger than her peers and behind them developmentally, Louisell felt isolated from them.

Despite this considerable cumulative adversity, Louisell graduated early from high school at age sixteen. She initially contemplated attending college in Michigan or Indiana, close to home. However, for financial reasons, she accepted a full tuition scholarship and immediately enrolled in a summer enrichment program at ISU, hundreds of miles from home. After Louisell arrived at ISU, she found the sudden independence of a college student overwhelming. She began to struggle academically and, with her self-confidence near zero, started drinking heavily and using marijuana to escape from her emotional stress. As the fall semester continued, Louisell's grades continued to slip and she felt hopeless.

Needing to earn money because she feared ISU would revoke her scholarship for poor academic performance, Louisell answered an advertisement seeking a model for art classes at a local art institute. She initially declined employment because the institute informed her that posing nude was a requirement of the position. However, she eventually decided she needed the money and agreed to pose nude for one of the institute's classes. After she posed for a few sessions at the institute, Stilwell, one of the students at the institute, befriended Louisell and hired her to model privately in his home. See Louisell v. Dir. of Iowa Dep't of Corr., 178 F.3d 1019, 1021 (8th Cir. 1999). Stilwell was physically handicapped and could walk only by using canes. See id. Louisell agreed to the private sessions because Stilwell--an older student twice Louisell's age--offered to compensate her at four times the hourly wage the institute paid her.

After several sessions in Stilwell's home, Louisell decided she did not want to continue modeling privately for Stilwell. Accordingly, she informed Stilwell an upcoming session would be her last. During that final session, Louisell contended at trial, Stilwell cornered her with a knife--despite his handicap--and announced he was going to have sex with her. Reacting instinctively, she claimed she wrested the knife from Stilwell and stabbed him in self-defense to prevent him from raping her. She left Stilwell's home and took Stilwell's wallet with her. She was later apprehended while attempting to use Stilwell's credit card to make a purchase at a local mall. A jury rejected Louisell's version of events and her justification defense, returning a verdict finding Louisell guilty of first-degree murder.

After Louisell's conviction, she was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole,[1]

Page 594

the only sentence authorized in Iowa Code section 902.1 (1987) for that crime.[2] She unsuccessfully pursued a direct appeal and two subsequent applications for postconviction relief in state court. Her habeas petition filed in federal court was also denied. See Louisell, 178 F.3d at 1021-22, 1024. She has remained in state custody for twenty-six years since her 1988 conviction and is currently incarcerated at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville, Iowa.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held the Eighth Amendment prohibits LWOP sentences for juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses; they must be afforded " some realistic opportunity to obtain release." Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 82, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 2034, 176 L.Ed.2d 825, 850 (2010). Seeking to extend Graham 's Eighth Amendment protections to include juveniles convicted of homicide, Louisell filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in 2011. While the motion was pending, the United States Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing schemes that impose LWOP while failing to afford juvenile offenders--even those convicted of homicide--an individualized sentencing determination based on specific factors the Court identified. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. , , , 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2468, 2475, 183 L.Ed.2d 407, 423, 430 (2012) (identifying five factors sentencing courts must consider); Ragland, 836 N.W.2d at 115 n.6 (adopting the Miller factors).

Louisell's mandatory LWOP sentence fell within the category of sentences Miller made invalid. Governor Terry Branstad subsequently commuted Louisell's LWOP sentence--along with the sentences of thirty-seven other juvenile offenders--to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after sixty years in prison. See Ragland, 836 N.W.2d at 110-12 (reproducing one of the Governor's commutation orders in its entirety). Yet, the district court denied Louisell's motion to correct an illegal sentence, concluding Miller had only prospective effect. Louisell appealed.

While Louisell's appeal was pending, we held that, as applied to one of the other thirty-seven LWOP sentences imposed on juvenile offenders, the Governor's commutation elevated form over substance. See id. at 121. We explained that although parole was technically available to the affected inmates after sixty years in prison, the commuted sentences were " the functional equivalent of life without parole" because they provided no meaningful opportunity for release. Id. at 121-22. We also determined that Miller applies retroactively. Id. at 117.

Following our Ragland decision, we summarily vacated Louisell's sentence and remanded the case to the district court for an individualized sentencing hearing. At the hearing, Louisell presented testimony and exhibits tending to show she has been rehabilitated during her twenty-six years in prison. For example, the record shows Louisell completed numerous educational courses and programs while in prison, including an associate's degree in 1998 and a bachelor's degree--with magna cum laude honors--in 2009.[3] She learned at least one trade--electrician's helper--and participated

Page 595

in numerous other artistic, musical, and religious activities at the prison. Further, Louisell is a published author who mentors and tutors other incarcerated women.

Key players in Louisell's 1988 murder trial weighed in at the resentencing hearing. The county attorney who prosecuted Louisell testified she believes Louisell has served enough time and has been punished sufficiently. Judge Allan Goode, who presided over Louisell's 1988 criminal trial, authored a letter in which he opined Louisell could make positive contributions to the community if she were released from prison.[4]

Louisell presented other evidence at the resentencing hearing detailing the circumstances awaiting her should she be released from prison. For example, the record includes a letter confirming she has received an offer of employment as an apprentice electrical trimmer. Other evidence was presented to the court describing the support system standing ready to help Louisell reenter society should she be discharged from prison. Together, the evidence created an overarching theme: By all accounts, Louisell is a model inmate who has achieved rehabilitation; grown from a naïve and impulsive youngster to a mature, accomplished, and intelligent woman; and accepted full responsibility for the crime she committed as a juvenile in 1987.

After hearing the testimony and considering the exhibits Louisell presented, the district court acknowledged significant statutory and constitutional uncertainty with regard to the court's sentencing authority after Miller and Ragland. The court then carefully considered the evidence in the record and thoroughly analyzed each of the Miller factors. After doing so, the court resentenced Louisell to a definite term of twenty-five years with credit for time served, thereby discharging her from prison immediately and releasing her to correctional supervision, as if on parole, for no more than two years. Recognizing the possibility an appellate court might conclude the district court lacked authority to impose a definite term of years for first-degree murder, the court imposed an alternative sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years. Under this alternative sentence, the court determined Louisell is now eligible for parole, but left to the parole board's discretion when Louisell should in fact be paroled.

The State appealed and also requested an immediate stay of the district court's resentencing order. We granted the stay and retained the appeal to clarify the district court's sentencing authority in this evolving area of law.

II. Scope of Review.

Illegal sentences can be challenged at any time. Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(5)( a ); State v. Hoeck, 843 N.W.2d 67, 70 (Iowa 2014); Pearson, 836 N.W.2d at 94. A sentence is illegal if it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Hoeck, 843 N.W.2d at 70; Bonilla v. State, 791 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Iowa 2010). Because appeals asserting cruel and unusual punishment claims require constitutional analysis, our review is typically de novo. Hoeck, 843 N.W.2d at 70; Ragland, 836 N.W.2d at 113.

Louisell has not appealed from the new sentence, and we therefore do not consider whether it is illegal or cruel and ...

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