Appeals Accepted in First Miller Cases: Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentence Challenged

Less than three weeks after a Supreme Court ruling mandated it, an Iowa court gives two inmates the right to appeal the life without parole sentences they were given years ago when they were 17 years old.
“We’re thrilled to see these concrete steps being made,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “They are obviously required to do so,” she added.
The Iowa cases may be the first nationwide re-opened under Miller v. Alabama.
The Supreme Court said in Miller that sentencing judges must consider mitigating factors in dealing with juvenile homicide cases. That invalidates about 2,400 sentences nationwide in federal courts and the 28 states where juveniles have been sent to life without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes. Mandatory sentencing laws ignore age, youth brain development, life history and all other factors.

And now defense attorneys are calling to consult Gordon Allen, who represents Iowa inmate Christine Lockheart.
“The Supreme Court says now the defendant is different and in court we will show how she’s different,” said Allen. He filed with Iowa Court of Appeals a motion for illegal sentencing right after the Miller verdict. The court vacated the sentence on July 11.
Now Allen is preparing Lockheart’s appeal, which he expects will be heard sometime in the next two to five weeks. He also said, however, that he will suggest a plea bargain.
In Iowa at any time attorneys can challenge an illegal sentence, Allen explained, but added that not all states have the same statute.
“If you can’t find it in the rules, make it up,” he advises attorneys. “This is a Constitutional decision. If you don’t have a motion to correct an illegal sentence, file one anyway.”
He’s communicated via e-mail with Lockheart since the decision and said it was “big news” in prison.
Lockheart was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1985. She had been sitting outside in a truck when her boyfriend went in the home of a Lockheart family friend and killed the older man.
Iowan Thomas Bennett had his sentence for the 1998 shooting death of a Des Moines man vacated the same day as Lockheart.
Allen said, “the mitigating evidence allowed will be quite similar to what’s allowed in a death penalty case.” That is, a very broad list of things will qualify for inclusion, almost anything in a defendant’s history.
He has one other piece of advice for defense attorneys in Miller cases: “You have to be extremely responsible to and aware of victims … The victims are understandably upset their relative is not here and will never be here again.”
The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers brings together grieving families.
“While we understand the tragic consequences to the killers, the entire context of this decision is first and foremost the appalling and senseless murders of our innocent loved ones and the devastation left behind,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, NOVJL president, in a statement. Her organization says Miller reopens the judicial part of their painful ordeals that victim families considered closed.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, supported by the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. 

Maggie Lee is a reporter with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
*Photo at top by Flickr user Phil Roeder

Updated: July 16 2012