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State v. Crooks

Supreme Court of Iowa

April 20, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Mitchell County, Gregg R. Rosenbladt and James M. Drew, Judges.

         Defendant convicted of second-degree murder as a youthful offender for offense he committed at age thirteen challenges his fifty-year prison sentence imposed at age eighteen. AFFIRMED.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Martha J. Lucey, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Bridget A. Chambers and Denise A. Timmins, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

          WATERMAN, Justice.

         In this appeal, we must decide challenges to Iowa's youthful offender laws raised by a defendant who at age thirteen fatally shot his mother. The State prosecuted him as a youthful offender in district court, and a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. When he reached age eighteen, the district court sentenced him to an indeterminate prison term of up to fifty years (with no mandatory minimum). The defendant raises statutory and constitutional challenges to his prosecution and sentence, arguing that as a thirteen-year-old offender, his case should have remained in juvenile court and that at age eighteen he should have been released on probation or placed in a transitional facility rather than prison.

         We retained his appeal and, for the reasons explained below, affirm his conviction as a youthful offender and his fifty-year indeterminate sentence with immediate parole eligibility. We conclude the district court properly exercised its discretion based on an individualized assessment of this defendant under a constitutional statutory scheme. We acknowledge sentencing reform efforts nationwide to raise the minimum age for prosecution in adult court. But under our constitutional separation of powers, those efforts should be directed to the legislature.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On the evening of March 24, 2012, Noah Crooks was at home with his mother, Gretchen Crooks. Noah was thirteen years old and an eighth grader at Osage Middle School. He had no prior criminal record. The Crooks lived in rural Osage, in Mitchell County. Gretchen worked as a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Mason City and was studying to get her master's degree at the University of Iowa. Noah's father, William Crooks, worked at Cargill Kitchen Solutions in Mason City. William and Gretchen had been married for seventeen years.

         William was at a work-related party away from home that evening when Noah loaded a .22 caliber rifle upstairs. Noah took the loaded rifle downstairs and saw his mother in the kitchen facing away from him. She was making dinner for him. Noah later told a child psychiatrist that he could not shoot her at that moment because it would not be honorable to shoot his mother in the back. Noah returned upstairs until his mother called up to say his dinner was ready. He returned downstairs with the rifle and this time found his mother sitting on the living room sofa studying her coursework. Noah shot her twenty-two times, killing her.

         Noah sent his dad a text message at 7:30 p.m. The message stated, "Dad, this is Noah. I killed Mom accidentally. I regret it. Come home now please." William thought Noah was joking and replied, "Okay. Just throw her in the grove. We will take care of her later."

         Noah called 911 and told the Mitchell County dispatcher, Barbara Michael, "I killed my mom with my twenty-two." He admitted he "shot her . . . with twenty rounds maybe." Noah also said, "I, I tried to rape her. . . . I didn't do it. I tried to rape her, I couldn't do it." Noah talked to the dispatcher about his concerns over his own future, stating,

I'm never gonna be able to marry. . . . I'm never gonna get, be able to get a good job now, 'cause it'll be on my resume. . . . I mean, I'll barely be able to get a job like McDonald's. I mean I had plans of going to Michigan State University to get an engineering job, making my own car company. That's all down the drain now.

         Deputy Jeff Huftalin was dispatched to the Crooks's residence and knocked on the front door. Noah answered the door while he was still on the phone with the dispatcher. Deputy Huftalin asked Noah where his mother was. Noah told him she was in the living room and that the gun was on a chair. Deputy Huftalin asked Noah to sit on the porch while he entered the house. Deputy Huftalin found Gretchen slouched on the couch; he could see bullet holes in her chest. Gretchen's pajama top was unbuttoned, and she was naked from the waist down. Deputy Huftalin confirmed that Gretchen was dead. He handcuffed Noah and put him in the backseat of the patrol car.

         Deputy Huftalin called William to tell him there had been an accident in his house and that he needed to come home. Upon arrival, William was told that Gretchen was dead and that Noah had shot her.

         The State filed a delinquency petition four days later, alleging that Crooks, age thirteen, committed the delinquent acts of first-degree murder and assault with the intent to commit sexual abuse. The State requested that the juvenile court waive jurisdiction so that Crooks could be tried as a youthful offender in adult court, as provided in Iowa Code section 232.45(7) (2011). Crooks filed a motion to dismiss, challenging the juvenile court's statutory authority to waive jurisdiction over a thirteen-year-old. The juvenile court denied the motion. Crooks then filed a second motion to dismiss, this time asserting the youthful offender statute was unconstitutional. The juvenile court denied this motion, finding Crooks failed to establish that the statute was unconstitutional.

         At the waiver-of-jurisdiction hearing, the juvenile court made the three findings required by Iowa Code section 232.45(7)(a) for transfer to district court: (1) Crooks was fifteen years of age or younger, (2) there was probable cause that Crooks committed the forcible felonies alleged in the petition, and (3) the State had established that there were no reasonable prospects for rehabilitating Crooks prior to his eighteenth birthday if the juvenile court retained jurisdiction. The juvenile court waived jurisdiction over Crooks and transferred the case to the district court for Noah's prosecution as a youthful offender.

         The State filed a trial information in district court, alleging murder in the first degree and assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. The jury trial began on April 30, 2013. Crooks raised the defenses of insanity and diminished responsibility. On May 13, the jury returned a verdict finding him guilty of murder in the second degree and not guilty of assault with the intent to commit sexual abuse. The court placed him on youthful offender status and transferred his supervision to the juvenile court for disposition under Iowa Code section 232.52.

         After conducting a dispositional hearing, the juvenile court transferred guardianship of Crooks to the director of the Department of Human Services for placement at the State Training School in Eldora. Crooks was under the supervision of the juvenile court until his eighteenth birthday. The juvenile court conducted yearly review hearings, and Crooks remained at the State Training School. He attended school and participated in mental health treatment. He graduated from high school on May 29, 2015.

         In April 2016, the juvenile court officer (JCO) filed a youthful offender report, and the juvenile court reported to the district court as required by Iowa Code section 232.56. The report noted that throughout his time at Eldora, Crooks tried to avoid addressing why he killed his mother. The JCO mentioned that when Crooks's father confronted him about his matricide, he responded that "[he] thought we would be better off without her." The JCO report elaborated,

During a recent family meeting on April 14, 2016 with his father and counselors, Noah was asked again about why he killed his mother. He responded by saying, "I didn't think of the consequences. I didn't think anything would happen. I thought I would maybe get grounded." This question has been asked of Noah throughout his therapy time at the State Training School. Any answer Noah could give would not be an acceptable answer to his father and family members.

         The district court ordered a presentence investigation (PSI). The PSI report recommended incarceration:

The defendant was 13 years of age when he shot and killed his mother. He will turn 18 on 07/29/16. Prior to his arrest on the instant offense he had no criminal history. He was involved in counseling with his family and was placed on psychotropic medication for a couple of years. There are reports he made comments to his peers at school about killing his mother and it would appear he bullied other children from time to time. It is also noted he was cruel to animals and may have burned down his grandmother's home when he was 5-6 years of age. These types of behaviors are disturbing for a child of his age. He admitted he was "arrogant and stuck up" and didn't really think anything bad was going to happen to him when he killed his mother.
The defendant professes that he came from a good home and loved his family, yet he shot and killed his mother in their own home. He stated he was not angry at her and reported he was close to his mother. His behavior at the State Training School has been pretty unremarkable with a few minor violations. According to the defendant, he has had no major behavioral issues at the training school because he knows the rules and doesn't want to suffer the consequences that would come as a result of negative choices he might make. He graduated from high school and has dreams of attending college.
The real concern is for public safety and how the defendant will conduct himself if allowed to return to society. No one can predict the future behavior of an individual with any certainty. He has been in institutional settings since the age of 13 and has learned to follow rules and modify his behavior in a structured setting. The concern is will others be placed at risk and will he create more victims in the future? If the defendant could offer a plausible explanation for why he shot and killed his mother, that might offer some insight into his thoughts and actions that day, but he can give no explanation for why he did what he did. For the protection of society, it is recommended the defendant be supervised at a higher level of supervision than what community based supervision can provide.
In light of the above it is respectfully recommended that the defendant be sentenced to a period of forty-five (45) years to the custody of the Director of the Department of Corrections.[1]

         The district court held a hearing on May 6 to determine Crooks's status after his eighteenth birthday. The attorneys presented arguments. The State requested a fifty-year indeterminate sentence with no mandatory minimum. Crooks's attorney told the court,

You only have two options under the statute itself. The first is to continue the youthful offender status itself or discharge him. That's it. There aren't - In the event that you continue the youthful offender status itself, then you have other options. You can place him on probation. You can confine him. You can do a number - You can suspend the sentence and you can provide all types of restrictions on probation, but that's it. And that's the position that we've taken.

         His attorney further argued that any confinement or probation could not exceed five years, with credit provided for time served. He did not specifically request placement in a transitional facility.

         Crooks read to the court a statement he wrote in which he described the groups he voluntarily joined at the State Training School and expressed his regret for taking his mother's life. He apologized to the people he hurt through his actions. Several family members gave victim-impact statements. His uncle (the victim's brother) requested the maximum sentence, and his maternal grandmother emphasized that he "doesn't have real empathy." William, the defendant's father, spoke last:

[F]or four years we never talked about Gretchen, not once. He never had any remorse about his mom. I'd push him. . . . [H]e just wanted her out of his life because he can play video games. . . . [F]our years isn't long enough to pay for a wonderful woman who did so much at the hospital, for all of us, who were all of our rocks that we had to rely on. I - he needs to pay for his mother's life.
And I know that's hard to say, but it's just what it is, kid. It's time you face the piper, I guess, and letting you out today would ruin so many more lives. It honestly would.
[T]he common theme throughout the documents that have been submitted, and even comments made here today, is that there has been a surprising lack of an emotional response from Noah, something showing appropriate remorse, empathy, which is understanding the feelings of the other people who have been affected by your actions. And I recognize that you are a young person, and there's a reason we treat young people differently. It's because sometimes emotionally they aren't developed enough to maybe respond in the appropriate way; but it is - it is very apparent to me, in reviewing the evidence, that for one reason or another, Noah, you just don't want to deal with this, with what you've done; and at some point in time you're going to have to, but it doesn't appear to me that that's happened yet. You've got some ground yet to cover and I think that there's work left to be done so I don't believe that a straight discharge at this time is appropriate.
At this point I do not see sufficient evidence to convince me that Noah has been rehabilitated. The nature and circumstances of this offense, coupled with the lack of emotion, remorse, and empathy, indicates that there is a lot of ground to cover. There have been some recent expressions of remorse and attempts to show empathy, and I hope that those are sincere, but the fact that they are so recent causes me to wonder. And, Noah, going forward you'll have the opportunity to prove to everybody that you mean what you say. You've heard the saying "actions speak louder than words, " and I suspect that's what your family is waiting for, and I know that's what the rest of us will be looking for as well.
I'm also concerned, when we talk about the appropriateness of street probation, that you have made the comment that you really don't think you have any need for future services. You made a comment, when asked whether you perhaps would want to return to the Training School to speak some day after you've been rehabilitated, you didn't really think so or you hoped not, I think were your words. You changed your answer after you were pressed on it a little bit, but those comments are concerning to me, that you still don't have a full appreciation for what you've done and the legitimacy of everyone's concerns.
I am hopeful, but I'm not yet convinced, that it is safe for you to be free despite your young age. The lack of an appropriate emotional response, the lack of empathy, the lack of something that even approaches an adequate explanation for why this happened could be an indication that you just don't care. We just don't know yet. That's the point, we don't know. And I don't believe it's appropriate to release you on probation until we can be confident that that isn't the situation, but rather that you do care and that we don't have to worry about something like this happening down the road. And, in short, we need more time so that we can be confident in that determination.
So I do believe that the imposition of a sentence with incarceration is appropriate, and to that end it is necessary that I enter conviction.

         The court entered judgment for murder in the second degree. The court sentenced Crooks to an indeterminate term of incarceration not to exceed fifty years without any mandatory minimum sentence.[2] Crooks was therefore immediately eligible for parole.

         Crooks appealed. On appeal, he argues that Iowa Code section 232.45(7)(a) (2011) does not provide statutory authority to try a thirteen-year-old as a youthful offender. He also contends sections 232.45(7) and 907.3A violate article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, he argues that the sentencing court abused its discretion by incarcerating him. We retained his appeal.

         II. Standard of Review.

         "[W]e review the juvenile court's interpretation of statutes for correction of errors at law." In re A.M., 856 N.W.2d 365, 370 (Iowa 2014). Our review of constitutional challenges to a statute is de novo. State v. Thompson, 836 N.W.2d 470, 483 (Iowa 2013). "We review the district court's sentence for an abuse of discretion." State v. Hill, 878 N.W.2d 269, 272 (Iowa 2016) (quoting State v. Barnes, 791 N.W.2d 817, 827 (Iowa 2010)).

         III. Analysis.

         Crooks raises several challenges to the youthful offender provisions of the Iowa Code. We begin by providing a brief overview of the statutory scheme. We then consider whether the statutes permitted the juvenile court to waive jurisdiction over Crooks at age thirteen for prosecution as a youthful offender in district court. Because we conclude the juvenile court was statutorily authorized to do so, we next address his claim that the youthful offender statutes constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. We conclude that the waiver provisions do not constitute punishment, and we decline to impose a categorical bar on prosecuting thirteen-year-olds as youthful offenders in district court. Finally, we reject his claims that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a sentence of incarceration with no mandatory minimum.

         A. Overview of the Youthful Offender Statutes.

         The youthful offender statutes were enacted in 1997 as part of comprehensive legislation related to juvenile justice. See generally 1997 Iowa Acts ch. 126 (entitled Juvenile Justice and Youthful Offenders). Generally, "[t]he juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction in proceedings concerning a child who is alleged to have committed a delinquent act unless otherwise provided by law . . . ." Iowa Code § 232.8(1)(a). However, the juvenile court may transfer cases to adult court.

After the filing of a petition which alleges that a child has committed a delinquent act on the basis of an alleged commission of a public offense and before an adjudicatory hearing on the merits of the petition is held, the county attorney or the child may file a motion requesting the court to waive its jurisdiction over the child for the alleged commission of the public offense or for the purpose of prosecution of the child as an adult or a youthful offender.

Id. § 232.45(1). Section 232.45(7)(a) sets forth the findings required for the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction over a child who then can be prosecuted as a youthful offender in district court.

At the conclusion of the waiver hearing and after considering the best interests of the child and the best interests of the community the court may, in order that the child may be prosecuted as a youthful offender, waive its jurisdiction over the child if all of the following apply:
(1) The child is fifteen years of age or younger.
(2) The court determines . . . that there is probable cause to believe that the child has committed a delinquent act which would constitute a public offense under section 232.8, subsection 1, paragraph "c", notwithstanding the application of that paragraph to children aged sixteen or older.
(3) The court determines that the state has established that there are not reasonable prospects for rehabilitating the child, prior to the child's eighteenth birthday, if the juvenile court retains jurisdiction over the child and the child enters into a plea agreement, is a party to a consent decree, or is adjudicated to have committed the delinquent act.

Id. § 232.45(7)(a) (emphasis added).[3] The juvenile court, however, can waive its jurisdiction over the child for prosecution as an adult only when "[t]he child is fourteen years of age or older" and other conditions are met. Id. § 232.45(6).

         B. The Applicability of Iowa Code Section 232.45(7)(a) to Thirteen-Year-Old Offenders.

         Crooks argues that Iowa Code section 232.45(7)(a) does not allow the juvenile court to waive jurisdiction over a thirteen-year-old child to be tried as a youthful offender in district court. He contends that, when related statutes are read together as a whole, section 232.45(7)(a) is ambiguous. We disagree and conclude the statutes unambiguously allow prosecution of a thirteen-year-old as a youthful offender. "[O]ur starting point in statutory interpretation is to determine if the language has a plain and clear meaning within the context of the circumstances presented by the dispute." McGill v. Fish, 790 N.W.2d 113, 118 (Iowa 2010).

         Crooks emphasizes the different language used for the "traditional" waiver for prosecution as an adult and waiver for prosecution as a youthful offender. Compare Iowa Code § 232.45(6)(a) ("fourteen years of age or older" to be prosecuted as an adult (emphasis added)), with id. § 232.45(7)(a)(1) ("fifteen years of age or younger" to be prosecuted as a youthful offender (emphasis added)). He encourages us to read these provisions together as setting a lower age limit-a "floor"-of fourteen for children who can be prosecuted as youthful offenders. Subsections 6(a) and 7(a) describe waiver processes with quite different consequences, and we decline to impose the lower age limit for prosecution as an adult on the subsection regarding prosecution as a youthful offender. The legislature used different language in describing age limits throughout the statute and knows how to set a lower age limit. See, e.g., id. ยง ...

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