The U.S. Supreme Court two years ago ruled against mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. / Matt York, AP
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Twenty-five Iowa inmates continue to wait for new prison sentences two years after a U.S. Supreme Court decision threw away mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Wednesday is the two-year anniversary of Miller v. Alabama, in which the high court ruled that juveniles who commit murder often lack maturity and have better chances for rehabilitation than adults. The case centered around Evan Miller, who was found guilty of murder by an Alabama jury after he beat a neighbor to death at age 14.
The ruling paved the way for 38 Iowa inmates convicted of murders committed when they were 17 or younger to seek new sentences. It also gave them hope of potential release.
But getting new sentences has been a lengthy process
for some inmates, and only 13 have been resentenced by judges since the landmark case, according to a review of online court records and Iowa Department of Corrections data by The Des Moines Register.
However, a new national report by the Sentencing Project - a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for sentencing reform - indicates that convicted juveniles in a majority of states cannot go to court to get chances at probation.
Only nine of the 28 states that had mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles at the time of Miller v. Alabama currently apply the ruling to give new sentencing opportunities to the inmates who were already behind bars, according to "Slow to Act," a report by the Sentencing Project.
Iowa is one of six states in which the state supreme court ruled the law should apply retroactively. At the time of the ruling, there were approximately 2,000 inmates in the U.S. sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as juveniles, according to the report.
"At least there's some action going on in Iowa in terms of people getting a second look," said Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst with the group. "We fully expected that the states would take the ruling seriously and give youth a real meaningful opportunity, but many of the states have really dragged their feet."
But while resentencings are moving ahead in Iowa, the state Legislature has failed to pass any new sentencing laws outlining how to punish juveniles convicted of murder, said Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who oversees prosecutions in Des Moines.
Without updates to state code, county attorneys are left with uncertainty over sentencings, he said.
"I think there needs to be certainty and I think we need to get some legislation," Sarcone said. "I think it has been detrimental because victims' families need to know and even the defendants need to know what the parameters are and there needs to be some clarity on it."
A resentencing hearing is a "one-time shot" for an inmate to show a judge the factors that led him or her to violence at a young age, said Michael Adams, chief of the special defense unit of the Iowa Office of the State Public Defender. To prepare for the hearings, defense attorneys must gather and sift through medical, psychological, school and juvenile court records, he said.
"Gathering the evidence about those factors is somewhat time-consuming, especially the longer the person has been in the institution or the older that they are; those records are further back, so that is a lot of the delay," Adams said. "The whole idea is for the court to get as accurate a picture what that individual was like when the crime was committed."
Adams' office is currently overseeing resentencing cases for 18 of the inmates, he said.
Adams said he thinks most inmates understand the time required to prepare for the resentencings. At least two inmates, however, have written to Iowa judges asking for private attorneys to be appointed to their cases.
In May, Vanice Heath, who was convicted of first-degree murder in Linn County in 1995 for his involvement in a gang slaying, asked a judge to allow an attorney he'd hired to take over his case due to communication concerns with Adam's office, according to a letter filed in court.
"I ... took 98 percent of all the money I've save sense (sic) I've been in prison and sent it to (the new attorney)," Heath wrote. "He then agreed to take the case."
Also in May, a judge denied a request from inmate Tyler Oberhart to have Adams taken off his case and a new attorney appointed. Oberhart was convicted in Jasper County in 2008 in a man's stabbing death.
Sarcone said the court's 2012 ruling has brought back memories to victims' family members. For instance, family members of two managers killed at a Des Moines diner in November 1992 - one of the city's most notorious slayings - will be forced to see the convicted killer, Joseph "Jo-Jo" White Jr., resentenced, he said.
"They look to the system for justice and when they're told this is what the sentence is going to be, this is what's going to happen, (and) years later that apple cart is upset, it really brings back all the haunting things. It causes problems for families," Sarcone said.
White, now 39, was 17 when he killed managers while robbing the diner. White has not been resentenced and has written to a judge asking about the status of his case.
For Sarcone, the two-year anniversary of the Miller v. Alabama ruling is a reminder that the Iowa Legislature should take action to pass a bill updating sentencing options. The ruling did not indicate what a proper sentence for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder should be, Sarcone said.
A legislative proposal backed by the Iowa County Attorney Associations would have allowed judges to consider two sentences: life in prison without the possibility for parole and life with the possibility of parole after a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence. The proposal, however, died early in the legislative session.
As long as sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are not set by the Legislature, county attorneys in the state will be hampered in their ability to help crime victims understand punishments for offenders, Sarcone said.
"There needs to be some certainty so we can explain," he said. "We're in a state now that if we have someone who's under the age of 18, we're going to have to explain, 'Here's what sentencing options could be,' but we aren't going to know that."
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: 25 young killers await new prison sentences in Iowa