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State v. Zarate

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 9, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
RENE ZARATE, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Buena Vista County, David A. Lester, Judge.

         Defendant, a juvenile offender, challenges his sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after a minimum term of twenty-five years as cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa and Federal Constitutions. DISTRICT COURT SENTENCE VACATED AND CASE REMANDED.

          Alexander Smith and Benjamin Bergmann of Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Boles Gribble Gentry Brown & Bergmann L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

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

          Joseph Fraioli and Rita Bettis of ACLU of Iowa, Des Moines, for amicus curiae.

          ZAGER, Justice.

         The defendant, convicted of first-degree murder as a juvenile offender, challenges his sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum term of twenty-five-years confinement as determined by the district court. By means of a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the defendant challenges the sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder set forth in Iowa Code section 902.1(2) under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Iowa Constitution. He argues that both the sentencing options and the factors that the sentencing court is required to consider under Iowa Code section 902.1(2) are unconstitutional given the language of the Iowa Constitution and prior federal and state precedent regarding juvenile sentencing. Alternatively, he claims that Iowa Code section 902.1(2) is unconstitutional as applied to his resentencing because the district court allowed the circumstances of his offense to overwhelm the analysis in its resentencing decision. For the reasons set forth below, we find that the only portion of Iowa Code section 902.1(2) that is unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution is section 902.1(2)(a)(1), which provides the district court with the option to sentence a juvenile offender convicted of murder in the first degree to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The remainder of Iowa Code section 902.1(2) is constitutional under the Iowa Constitution. However, we vacate Zarate's sentence and remand for resentencing consistent with this opinion and our opinion in State v. Roby, 897 N.W.2d 127 (Iowa 2017), which was decided subsequent to Zarate's resentencing.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background.

         Rene Zarate moved with his family from Mexico to Iowa when he was about twelve years old. Zarate did not speak English and had below average intellectual abilities. He struggled with behavioral issues in school after moving to Iowa, and he began to associate with members of a criminal street gang known as Surano 13. Zarate also started consuming alcohol and using drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and glue. He had frequent contact with law enforcement and first entered the juvenile justice system when he was about fourteen years old. As a teenager, Zarate was involved in various criminal acts including burglary, theft, and criminal mischief. Consequently, he spent time in juvenile detention and on house arrest. Zarate also failed to successfully complete his required probation.

         On the evening of May 1, 1999, fifteen-year old Zarate and some friends were drinking alcohol together in violation of Zarate's probation conditions in a mobile home where Jorge Ramos rented a room. When Ramos arrived home in the early morning hours of May 2, he began to argue with one of Zarate's friends after Ramos refused the friend's request for Ramos to drink with them. Ramos subsequently took the phone from the living room and went to his bedroom. After Ramos took the phone, Zarate became worried that Ramos was going to call the police on him and his friends, which could negatively affect his probation. Zarate became upset and made multiple attempts to attack Ramos. First, Zarate tried to attack Ramos with a screwdriver. However, a friend was able to take the screwdriver away. Next, Zarate tried to attack Ramos with a hatchet, but a friend was also able to take the hatchet away. Finally, Zarate went to a bedroom, removed a fishing knife he found from a tackle box, and stabbed Ramos with the knife. Ramos managed to stumble into the living room before he fell on a mattress on the floor. At this point, Zarate's friends fled the mobile home. Zarate followed Ramos to the living room and proceeded to stab Ramos a total of fifty times, resulting in his death.

         After killing Ramos, Zarate kicked and spat on Ramos's body, laughing and calling Ramos names in Spanish. He then moved the body outside and covered it with blankets before attempting to get lighter fluid or gasoline from friends to burn the blankets and the body. When police officers arrived on the scene, Zarate initially lied to the police about his identity and provided them with false information before the police arrested him. After questioning, Zarate later confessed to murdering Ramos. On February 8, 2001, a jury convicted Zarate of murder in the first degree, a class "A" felony, in violation of Iowa Code section 707.2 (1999). Zarate was subsequently sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole pursuant to Iowa Code section 902.1(2).

         In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), in which it held a sentencing scheme providing for mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, the Court held that a sentencing court must make individualized sentencing decisions that consider the juvenile offender's age and age-related characteristics before imposing "the harshest possible penalty for juveniles" of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Id. at 489, 132 S.Ct. at 2475.

         Following Miller, the Governor commuted the sentences of Zarate and all other juvenile offenders in Iowa serving mandatory sentences of life without parole to sentences of sixty years without parole and with no credit for earned time. See State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107, 110-11 (Iowa 2013). Consequently, Zarate filed a Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence. After Zarate filed that motion, we decided Ragland in which we found that Miller applied retroactively and held that the Governor's commutations were de facto sentences of life without the possibility of parole that required the same individualized sentencing set forth in Miller. Id. at 119, 122. Therefore, juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole were entitled to a resentencing hearing. Id. Zarate then filed a Supplemental Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence on March 7, 2014.

         Prior to Zarate's resentencing hearing, the Iowa legislature passed a bill that the Governor signed into law changing Iowa Code section 902.1(2) under which Zarate was originally sentenced. See 2015 Iowa Acts ch. 15, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 902.1(2) (effective Apr. 24, 2015)). Under the revised law, a sentencing court has the option to sentence a juvenile offender convicted of first-degree murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum term of confinement as determined by the court, or life imprisonment with the immediate possibility of parole. Iowa Code § 902.1(2)(a)(1)-(3) (2016). Moreover, the law sets forth twenty-five sentencing factors for sentencing courts to consider in determining which of the aforementioned sentencing options to impose. See id. § 902.1(2)(b)(2)(a)-(v).

         On June 3, 2015, the district court conducted a hearing concerning Zarate's supplemental motion to correct his illegal sentence and request for a resentencing hearing. At the hearing, Zarate argued that Iowa Code section 902.1(2) violates the Iowa Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under article I, section 17 because it takes away the district court's discretion to determine sentences for juvenile offenders as required by Miller and Ragland. He also argued that the statute denies him a meaningful opportunity for release, even with the parole options, due to the existing statutes governing Iowa's parole system. In response, the State asserted the district court is required to follow Iowa Code section 902.1(2) in sentencing Zarate because that statute provides Zarate with individualized sentencing by virtue of the factors listed in Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(b)(2).

         On December 9, the district court ruled that Iowa Code section 902.1(2) did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Iowa Constitution. In doing so, the district court noted that neither Miller nor our holding in State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378 (Iowa 2014), prohibits sentencing juveniles to prison for the length of time the legislature sets forth for the crime, nor does either prohibit a legislatively imposed minimum time that juvenile offenders must serve in prison before becoming parole eligible.

         Instead, the district court found that the precedent set forth in Miller, and our progeny of Miller cases, merely require a sentencing judge to follow an individualized process that allows for the consideration of mitigating circumstances related to the juvenile offender's age and youthful characteristics. The district court held Iowa Code section 902.1(2) complies with the individualized sentencing requirement by providing the sentencing court with options concerning the conditions placed on a term of life in prison for juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder. Further, the district court found Iowa Code section 902.1(2) provides the mandated individualized sentencing by requiring the sentencing court to consider the twenty-five factors listed in Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(b)(2)(a)-(v)-many of which, according to the district court, seemingly have either been taken directly from Miller or fall within the parameters of Miller. Likewise, the district court found the inclusion of possible aggravating factors in the law is permissible so long as the sentencing court also considers the required mitigating factors. Consequently, the district court held Iowa Code section 902.1(2) is constitutional on its face and is in accord with both Miller and Ragland.

         Zarate's resentencing hearing was held on December 18. Zarate requested a term-of-years sentence of thirty years with parole eligibility after a period of fifteen years despite acknowledging that this sentence would violate Iowa Code section 902.1(2). Meanwhile, the State asserted its belief that life without parole was still justifiable, [1] though it acknowledged that the district court could choose life with the possibility of parole. The State also asked the district court to impose a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment before allowing for parole eligibility. In imposing Zarate's sentence, the district court stated, "[Zarate's] request for a fixed period of 30 years with a minimum of 15 years I still believe is unconstitutional. I don't have the authority to do that" based on the sentencing options provided in section 902.1(2). The district court also found life without the possibility of parole would be an inappropriate sentence in Zarate's case.

         The district court ultimately decided to resentence Zarate under Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(a)(2) to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after a minimum term of imprisonment of twenty-five years with credit for time already served under his previously imposed illegal sentence. In reaching this decision, the district court stated, "I have taken into consideration the 25 factors I'm now supposed to consider under the existing statute, and the circumstances, I guess is the terminology they now use." While the district court did not individually go through each factor, it did make statements about various circumstances that guided its decision. Specifically, the district court noted Zarate's age and involvement in the crime, the fact that Zarate did not seem to be a threat to the public or any other individual beyond his victim, Zarate's degree of participation in the crime, Zarate's intellectual and emotional capacity, his susceptibility to peer pressure, the violent aspect of the crime, his drug and alcohol abuse, and his acceptance of responsibility for the crime.

         Finally, the district court stated,

After considering all those foregoing factors, which I am for the record considering as mitigating factors just so we're all clear, after considering those factors along with your improved behavior since you've been in prison during the last 10 years . . . lead me to conclude that you are entitled not only to have an opportunity at parole, but also that opportunity should be available to you at a fixed point in time in the future. I've chosen that point of time to be approximately 10 years from now just to ensure that you serve what I believe should be the minimum period of time for somebody that takes the life of another individual, whether that person is a juvenile or an adult.

Zarate appealed, and we retained the appeal.

         On appeal, Zarate presents three issues. First, whether Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(a)(1)-(3) violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Second, whether the sentencing factors enumerated in Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(b)(2)(a)-(v) violate article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Finally, if neither of these provisions is unconstitutional, whether Zarate's resentencing was unconstitutional based on his claim that the district court allowed the circumstances of the crime to overwhelm the analysis, thereby preventing him from receiving a truly individualized sentence as is constitutionally required.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We may review a challenge that a sentence is illegal at any time. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 382; see also Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(5)(a). While we generally review challenges to illegal sentences for correction of errors at law, we apply de novo review for an allegation of an unconstitutional sentence. State v. Seats, 865 N.W.2d 545, 553 (Iowa 2015). Zarate's first two challenges are categorical, so we apply de novo review. Finally, we review sentences that are within the statutory limits for an abuse of discretion, though this standard "is not forgiving of a deficiency in the constitutional right to a reasoned sentencing decision based on a proper hearing." Roby, 897 N.W.2d at 138.

         III. Analysis.

         A. State and Federal Jurisprudence on Cruel and Unusual Punishment Regarding Juvenile Sentencing.

         The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution both prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. U.S. Const. amend. VIII; Iowa Const. art. I, § 17. Under both provisions, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment " 'flows from the basic "precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned" ' to both the offender and the offense." Miller, 567 U.S. at 469, 132 S.Ct. at 2463 (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 1190 (2005)); State v. Propps, 897 N.W.2d 91, 98 (Iowa 2017). Over the past fifteen years, the United States Supreme Court has decided a trilogy of cases interpreting the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause in relation to juvenile sentencing. See Miller, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455; Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010); Roper, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183. Additionally, we have decided a number of recent cases in line with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence under the Iowa Constitution dealing with cruel and unusual punishment regarding juvenile sentencing. To analyze Zarate's argument under the Iowa Constitution's cruel and unusual punishment jurisprudence, we first review the federal and state jurisprudence necessary to give context to the analysis.

         The Supreme Court's trilogy of juvenile sentencing cases began with its 2005 holding in Roper that the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause prohibits the imposition of capital punishment on juvenile offenders. 543 U.S. at 560, 125 S.Ct. at 1190. In Roper, the Court noted the differences in maturity, responsibility, susceptibility to negative influences, control, and character development between adult and juvenile offenders that "render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders." Id. at 569-70, 125 S.Ct. at 1195. Five years later, the Supreme Court decided Graham, holding a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment. 560 U.S. at 74, 130 S.Ct. at 2030. Finally, in 2012, the Supreme Court held in Miller that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment. 567 U.S. at 479, 132 S.Ct. at 2469. In doing so, the Court held that sentencing courts must make individualized sentencing decisions for juvenile offenders that consider their age and age-related characteristics before imposing "the harshest possible penalty for juveniles" of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Id. at 489, 132 S.Ct. at 2475.

         In the wake of Miller, the Governor commuted the sentences of all juvenile offenders in Iowa serving mandatory sentences of life without parole to sentences of sixty years without parole and with no credit for earned time. See Ragland, 836 N.W.2d at 110-11. Consequently, in Ragland, we held that Miller applied retroactively and that the Governor's commutations were de facto sentences of life without the possibility of parole that required individualized sentencing as described in Miller. Id. at 119, 122. Miller and our subsequent decision in Ragland launched a series of cases regarding juvenile sentencing under the Iowa Constitution.

         First, in State v. Null, we held that Miller's individualized sentencing requirement applied to a 52.5-year sentence because "geriatric release" after a lengthy term-of-years sentence for a juvenile offender fails to provide the juvenile with any meaningful opportunity to demonstrate his or her maturity and rehabilitation. 836 N.W.2d 41, 70- 71 (2013). Likewise, in State v. Pearson, we held that Miller's individualized sentencing requirement applied under the Iowa Constitution to a minimum sentence of thirty-five years before parole eligibility for a juvenile offender convicted of nonhomicide offenses. 836 N.W.2d 88, 96 (Iowa 2013).

         Further, in Lyle, we held all mandatory minimum prison sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution and found that "the sentencing of juveniles according to statutorily required mandatory minimums does not adequately serve the legitimate penological objectives in light of the child's categorically diminished culpability." 854 N.W.2d at 400-01. We also provided the following factors that a district court must use in determining whether the minimum period of incarceration without parole is warranted:

(1) the age of the offender and the features of youthful behavior, such as "immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences"; (2) the particular "family and home environment" that surround the youth; (3) the circumstances of the particular crime and all circumstances relating to youth that may have played a role in the commission of the crime; (4) the challenges for youthful offenders in navigating through the criminal process; and (5) the possibility of rehabilitation and the capacity for change.

854 N.W.2d at 404 n.10 (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at 477-78, 132 S.Ct. at 2468).

         In State v. Louisell, we reaffirmed

that under both the United States Constitution and the Iowa Constitution, juveniles convicted of crimes must be afforded a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation"-if a sentencing judge, exercising discretion, determines parole should be available.

865 N.W.2d 590, 602 (Iowa 2015) (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75, 130 S.Ct. at 2030). We also held that a fixed term-of-years sentence was not an option "[b]ecause there was no statutory authority for the determinate sentence" and "judges may only impose punishment authorized by the legislature within constitutional constraints." Id. at 598. Additionally, we declined to address Louisell's argument that her parole eligibility was illusory based on Iowa's low rate of parole-eligible offenders who had actually been granted parole, asserting that this argument was not ripe for us to decide. Id. at 601-02.

         In Seats, we expounded upon the factors a district court should consider as part of its discretionary sentencing in cases where it could sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. 865 N.W.2d at 556-57. These factors stem from our holding in Lyle and include the differences between children and adults, the family and home environment, the circumstances of the homicide offense, the role of substance abuse in the juvenile's offense, and the fact that juveniles are more capable of rehabilitation than adults. Id. at 555-57. Additionally, we stressed that "the presumption for any sentencing judge is that the judge should sentence juveniles to life in prison with the possibility of parole for murder unless the other factors require a different sentence." Id. at 555.

         In State v. Sweet, we categorically banned sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. 879 N.W.2d 811, 839 (Iowa 2016). We noted that the Miller individualized sentencing hearing is inadequate in the context of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole because that sentence required the sentencer to "do the impossible, namely, to determine whether the offender is 'irretrievably corrupt' at a time when even trained professionals with years of clinical experience would not attempt to make such a determination." Id. at 837. Rather, the parole board, not the sentencer, is in the best position to determine whether the offender is incorrigibly corrupt. Id. at 839.

         Finally, in Roby, we concluded article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution does not categorically prohibit imposing a minimum term of incarceration without the possibility of parole on a juvenile offender so long as the court only imposes it after considering relevant mitigating factors of youth. 897 N.W.2d at 143. We also sought to provide guidance on the Lyle sentencing factors, noting that they ordinarily work to mitigate punishment in order to help sentencing courts craft "a punishment that serves the best interests of the child and society." Id. at 144 (quoting Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 402). Further, we reiterated the differences between children and adults in sentencing, asserting "[p]erceptions applicable to adult behavior cannot normally be used to draw conclusions from juvenile behavior." Id. at 147.

         B. Zarate's Categorical Challenges.

         The court employs a two-step inquiry to a categorical challenge to a sentence. See Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 386. First, we examine " 'objective indicia of society's standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice' to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue." Id. (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 61, 130 S.Ct. at 2022). Second, we consider our controlling precedents and our interpretation of the Iowa Constitution's text, history, meaning, and purpose to guide our own independent judgment on the constitutionality of the challenged sentence. Id. As part of our independent judgment, we also evaluate whether the challenged sentencing practice serves legitimate penological goals, as well as "the culpability of the offenders at issue in light of their crimes and characteristics, along with the severity of the punishment in question." Id. (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 67, 130 S.Ct. at 2026).

         1. The constitutionality of Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(a)(1)-(3). During the 2015 legislative session, the general assembly enacted and the Governor signed into law Senate File 448, which is codified at Iowa Code section 902.1. Iowa Code section 902.1(2)(a)(1)-(3) provides three sentencing options for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder:

(1) Commitment to the director of the department of corrections for the rest of the defendant's life with no possibility of parole unless the governor commutes the sentence to a term of years.
(2) Commitment to the custody of the director of the department of corrections for the rest of the defendant's life with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum ...

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