from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Nancy S.
from the denial of an application for postconviction relief.
Blair III of Blair & Fitzsimmons, P.C., Dubuque, for
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.
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.
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))).
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.
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.
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