April 10, 2013

Des Moines, Iowa

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that could free a man imprisoned for life for his involvement in a 1986 Council Bluffs parking lot brawl in which another man was killed.

The court is considering whether Jeffrey Ragland, 44, is eligible for parole now or must spend decades more in prison.

Ragland, who was sent to prison at age 17, is one of 38 Iowa prison inmates convicted of murder as a teen. They were given a chance to seek parole following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that said automatic life sentences for juveniles violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The court said states cannot automatically sentence juveniles to life.

Gov. Terry Branstad responded by issuing an order that those sentenced to life for juvenile crimes in Iowa must remain imprisoned for 60 years after their conviction before seeking parole.

For Ragland that would mean he couldn't apply for parole until he's 77. His life expectancy is 78, according to mortality tables.

Ragland's attorney, Jon Kinnamon said Branstad's action was virtually a life sentence for his client and most of the other Iowa juvenile offenders serving life. He argued that Branstad doesn't have the authority to challenge a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He said the order does not follow the spirit or intent of the court's decision and he hopes the Iowa Supreme Court tosses it out as unconstitutional.

"Hopefully I'm successful not only on Ragland's behalf but on behalf of the other juveniles subject to the governor's commutation sentence, which actually deprives 38 individuals of an opportunity for parole in terms of their life expectancy," he said in an interview.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Tauber, arguing for the state, acknowledged that Branstad's action would mean Ragland isn't eligible for parole until he's "elderly and not much life left to him." He said, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court decision doesn't guarantee juvenile offenders release but only assures them "the hope of release."

"The constitutional guarantee is a meaningful opportunity of release at some time," he said.

Justice Brent Appel pointed out that the federal courts have held that offenders must have some meaningful opportunity for release based on maturity and demonstrated rehabilitation. He questioned whether Branstad's action meets the spirit of the federal court's intention.

Tauber argued that Branstad's commutation to 60 years gives Ragland the meaningful opportunity required by the courts.

Kinnamon said if the justices throw out Branstad's commutation order, he believes the juvenile offenders will be resentenced to life in prison with opportunity for parole after 25 years.

For Ragland that would mean a parole hearing since he's served 26 years.

The Iowa Board of Parole reviews cases individually, which would give Ragland an opportunity to explain his story, Kinnamon said.

In 1986 Ragland was with friends in a Council Bluffs parking lot when a fight broke out. Ragland's friend, Matthew Gill, struck another person, Timothy Sieff, 19, with a tire iron. Sieff died.

Gill and two other teens also present reached plea deals with prosecutors. Gill served three years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction and was released on parole.

Ragland, who said he hadn't killed anyone, refused to admit guilt as part of a plea bargain. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.

Kinnamon said he believes Ragland's sentence compared to the others is excessive. When the parole board considers his role in the fight and hears support for Ragland's release from the Council Bluffs community, Kinnamon said he believes the parole board will "do their duty" and release him.

Other states also are dealing with the fallout of the federal court ruling last year.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has set an April 4 hearing to consider a resentencing request for Kuntrell Jackson, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 14 years old. He was present at an attempted robbery in 1999 when another boy shot a store clerk.

Nebraska lawmakers, trying to set a new minimum prison sentence for convicted murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles, failed to reach a vote Tuesday on a sentencing bill introduced in response to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Florida lawmakers are considering a bill to sentence juveniles to at least 50 years for murder, and Wyoming in February abolished life without parole for children.

"We're seeing a variety of different approaches in different states to try and deal with the issue of folks who have been sentenced to life without parole or with statutes on the books that are now unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court's ruling," said Emily Keller, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit advocate for children's rights.