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Smith v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 2, 2017

MARK ALLEN SMITH, Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Nancy S. Tabor, Judge.

         Appeal from the denial of an application for postconviction relief.

          Les M. Blair III of Blair & Fitzsimmons, P.C., Dubuque, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Zachary C. Miller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and McDonald, JJ. Tabor, J., takes no part.

          MCDONALD, Judge.

         Mark Smith was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time of the offense, Smith was eighteen-years-old. Smith filed an application for postconviction relief. In his application, Smith claimed imposition of a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on an eighteen-year-old constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates his right to the equal protection of the laws. He requested he be made parole-eligible. On the State's motion, the district court summarily dismissed Smith's application for postconviction relief. Smith filed this timely appeal.

         "Our review in postconviction relief proceedings is for correction of errors at law." Manning v. State, 654 N.W.2d 555, 558-59 (Iowa 2002) (citing DeVoss v. State, 648 N.W.2d 56, 60 (Iowa 2002)). However, "[t]his court reviews constitutional questions de novo." State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 869 (Iowa 2009) (citing State v. Brooks, 760 N.W.2d 197, 204 (Iowa 2009)). This court's interpretation of federal and state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment is generally the same. Id. at 882 ("Our past cases have generally assumed that the standards for assessing whether a sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution are identical to the Federal Constitution." (citing State v. Musser, 721 N.W.2d 734, 749 (Iowa 2006))).

         In recent years, the supreme court has created a separate sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders. See State v. Roby, N.W.2d _, _, 2017 WL 2610616, at *6 (Iowa 2017); State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d 811, 839 (Iowa 2016); State v. Louisell, 865 N.W.2d 590, 603 (Iowa 2015); State v. Seats, 865 N.W.2d 545, 555-58 (Iowa 2015); State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378, 400-04 (Iowa 2014); State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 74-75 (Iowa 2013); State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88, 95-98 (Iowa 2013); State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107, 121-22 (Iowa 2013). The supreme court has concluded this separate sentencing scheme is required by the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment embodied in article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. The factual and legal justifications for the juvenile sentencing scheme are succinctly summarized in State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d at 830-31 (identifying the critical fourteen points drawn from the federal case law and the three critical principles distilled from the Iowa case law). The primary justifications for the supreme court's juvenile sentencing scheme, and the justifications most relevant here, are medical literature tending to show the brain continues to develop until the age of twenty-five and medical and social science literature tending to show juveniles think and act differently than adults. See Null, 836 N.W.2d at 55 (stating the rationale is based on (1) "new" scientific evidence showing "the human brain continues to mature into the early twenties;" and (2) a finding that young people generally "lack the ability to properly assess risks and engage in adult-style self-control"). The supreme court has used this literature to support the argument "juveniles are constitutionally different than adults for purposes of sentencing." Sweet, 879 N.W.2d at 830.

         Smith argues the constitutional protections set forth in the above-cited cases should be applied to young adult offenders and that he should be eligible for parole. Specifically, in Sweet, the supreme court held "a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution." 879 N.W.2d at 839. While Smith acknowledges that Sweet applies only to juvenile offenders and that he was not a juvenile at the time of the offense, he contends the rationale underlying the case applies with equal force to him.

         Within the existing legal framework, Smith's argument is compelling. Indeed, Justice Waterman presaged this argument in his dissenting opinion in Lyle:

By holding Lyle's seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for his violent felony is cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, rather than under the Eighth Amendment, the majority evades review by the United States Supreme Court. As Justice Zager observes, no other appellate court in the country has gone this far. Our court stands alone in taking away the power of our elected legislators to require even a seven-year mandatory sentence for a violent felony committed by a seventeen-year-old.
Will the majority stop here? Under the majority's reasoning, if the teen brain is still evolving, what about nineteen-year olds? If the brain is still maturing into the mid-20s, why not prohibit mandatory minimum sentences for any offender under age 26? As judges, we do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Our legislators raise teenagers too. Courts ...

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