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State v. Null

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 10, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DENEM NULL, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Ian K. Thornhill, Judge.

         Denem Null appeals the sentences imposed on his convictions for crimes he committed as a juvenile.

          Mark C. Meyer, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          DOYLE, JUDGE.

         Denem Null appeals following a second resentencing for crimes he committed as a juvenile. He argues the district court failed to adequately state its reasons for imposing consecutive sentences. He also claims Iowa Code section 902.4 (2009) is unconstitutional as applied to him.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Null was sixteen years old when he shot and killed Kevin Bell during a robbery. After he entered guilty pleas, district court sentenced Null to a fifty-year term of incarceration for second-degree murder and a twenty-five-year term for first-degree robbery. Each sentence carried a seventy-percent mandatory minimum term. The district court ordered Null to serve the sentences consecutively.

         On direct appeal from his convictions and sentences, Null claimed the mandatory minimum sentence he was required to serve-in excess of fifty years- amounted to a de facto life sentence, thereby violating federal and state constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. See, e.g., Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012) (holding sentencing schemes that mandate life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders who commit homicide offenses unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment). Our supreme court held that juvenile offenders facing mandatory minimum prison terms of more than fifty years are entitled to an individualized sentencing hearing to determine their parole eligibility. State v. Null (Null I), 836 N.W.2d 41, 70-71 (Iowa 2013). The court noted specific considerations the district court must contemplate in sentencing these juvenile offenders, such as the difference in culpability between children and adults, their increased ability to change, and that lengthy prison sentences without the possibility of parole are only appropriate "in rare or uncommon cases." Id. at 74-75. The court vacated Null's sentence and remanded the case to the district court for individualized resentencing, ordering the court to consider whether the imposition of consecutive sentences would result in a prison term so lengthy it violates the Iowa Constitution's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Id. at 76-77.

         The district court held a resentencing hearing on remand. In its written order, the court summarized the evidence presented at the resentencing hearing:

[Null] is currently 23 years old, but was 16 years, 10 months, and 14 days old at the time he shot and killed Kevin Bell. [Null] had a rough childhood. His parents were never married and his father left when [Null] was four (4) years old. [Null] has two younger half-siblings. [Null] was primarily raised by his mother, who has a history of drug and alcohol abuse. [Null]'s mother also worked as a stripper and prostitute. Throughout the course of his childhood, [Null]'s mother brought several of her "boyfriends" into [Null]'s life. Many of these boyfriends were physically abusive to [Null] and [Null]'s mother. Both grandmothers described [Null]'s childhood as difficult and characterized him as being torn between his mother and his father. [Null] did spend periods of time in his father's care. Several Juvenile Court and DHS services were provided to [Null] throughout his childhood. These interventions are thoroughly summarized in the [presentence investigation report] and [Null]'s Addendum to Sentencing Memorandum filed under seal. While in residential treatment from January 2008 to January 2009, [Null] was sexually abused by a female staff member.
[Null] presented evidence of a history of mental illness in his family, including his own, mostly untreated, mental health issues. [Null] did receive some mental health treatment at age five (5), however, his mother would not allow him to take medication as prescribed.
While incarcerated, [Null] has taken advantage of the programs offered to him, including the completion of his GED. [Null] is also taking college courses and has taken advantage of job opportunities in prison. He has had some discipline problems during his incarceration and transition from county jail to prison, but these ...

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