No Life Without Possibility of Parole in Juvenile Cases, IA High Court Rules

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Criminal law, life without parole.

State of Iowa v. Isaiah Richard Sweet. IA criminal law, life without parole

In May 2012, Isaiah Sweet, then 17 years and 3 months old, shot and killed his grandparents, who had cared for him since he was four years old. He retrieved a rifle from his grandparents' room and loaded it with hololow-point rounds. He later stated that he knew they would do the most damage, but used them because he didn't want his grandparents to go through any pain. He put on earmuffs to protect his hearing and shot his grandfather because he "hated him and because he made his life a living hell." He then shot his grandmother. He then kissed them, told them he was sorry, and prayed for forgiveness. He said he knew it was wrong and wanted to take it back.

He then went to numerous parties and engaged in some drug transactions. At one point, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He told the officers that his grandparents were at the Mayo Clinic. He called his counselor, and was eventually released, but later arrested for the murders.

Sweet pleaded guilty, and the district court concluded that the case was the rare case in which a sentence of life without possibility of parole was warranted. It noted that the murders were horrific and showed utter lack of humanity. It found that he was currently and would continue to be a threat to society, and that the interests of justice and community safety outweighed any mitigating factors.

The defendant appealed the sentence, and the case was heard by the Iowa Supreme Court, which first reviewed the U.S. Supreme Court cases involving life without parole for juveniles. It noted that under the federal precedents, it "could continue to opt for the narrower, more incremental approach, by simply addressing the question of whether the State proved in this case that Sweet is one of the 'extremely rare' juveniles who is 'irredeemably corrupt.'"

The court framed the issue as follows:

whether we should continue to reserve the possibility that a juvenile offender may be identified as "irretrievable" at the time of sentencing, or whether that determination must be made by the parole board at a later time after the offender's juvenile brain has been fully developed and a behavior pattern established by a substantial period of incarceration.

It went on to conlcude:

In reviewing the caselaw development, we believe, in the exercise of our independent judgment, that the enterprise of identifying which juvenile offenders are irretrievable at the time of trial is simply too speculative and likely impossible given what we now know about the timeline of brain development and related prospects for self-regulation and rehabilitation. We agree with the observation in Graham that the sentencing task is undertaken by trial judges "who seek with diligence and professionalism to take into account the human existence of the offender and the just demands of a wronged society." Graham, 560 U.S. at 77, 130 S. Ct. at 2031, 176 L. Ed. 2d at 847. But a district court at the time of trial cannot apply the Miller factors in any principled way to identify with assurance those very few adolescent offenders that might later be proven to be irretrievably depraved. In short, we are asking 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.

For these reasons, the court held that life without parole for a juvenile violated Article I, Section 17, of the Iowa Constitution, and remanded the case for resentencing.

The court also remanded a second case, State v. Hardin (Iowa Sept. 16, 2016), in which the district court had applied life without parole in a juvenile case.

Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Zanger dissented from the Court's Sweet opinion.

No. 14-0455, 879 N.W.2d 841 (Iowa May 27, 2016).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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