Dick Haws: A sentence, and lesson, of life

Staff Writer
Ames Tribune

The lesson learned through the Yvette Louisell prison sentence? That in Iowa, even if you’ve had two or three court decisions go in your direction, it’s awfully tough to get out from under a “life-in-prison” sentence. But you live with hope.

Another court decision is expected shortly — maybe even this month — and this one, from the Iowa Supreme Court, might well be definitive.

Until 2012, Louisell was, more or less, just living out her life at the women’s prison in Mitchellville when the U. S. Supreme Court shook things up by ruling that a juvenile couldn’t be handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of … hallmark features (of juveniles), among them immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote U. S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

That decision gave Louisell a ray of hope because it meant that someday, she just might get out of prison because in Iowa, all first-degree murderers, even minors, were automatically sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.

Things have changed a lot since Louisell first came to Iowa 28 years ago, enrolling at ISU as a 17-year-old freshman.

The dorm where she lived, Westgate Hall, was knocked down years ago.

And ISU’s Memorial Union, where she posed nude in the drawing class that was open to the public, would never allow a juvenile to do such a thing today.

And Louisell, who was recruited to ISU as a high school honor student from Kalamazoo, Mich., is now a college graduate. She earned her degree from ISU in 2009 from behind those penitentiary walls, majoring in liberal studies. She even graduated magna cum laude and is now a full-fledged member of the Cyclone Family.

It was through that Memorial Union class that Louisell became a lifer. There she met Keith Stillwell, a 42-year-old budget analyst at the National Animal Disease Laboratory.

Stillwell, a paraplegic from a high school wrestling accident, and Louisell became friends. He invited her over to his house on Curtiss Avenue. On one of those visits, on Dec. 6, 1987, she stabbed him to death. It was huge front-page news … a nude model … an older man … a young student … race (she was black, he was white) … suspicions about sex … big tantalizing photos of the beautiful young girl that ran in the newspaper (Louisell had posed for the photographs soon after arriving on campus.). The newspapers and television stations found students who knew her a bit.

Her defense was that she stabbed Stillwell when he attacked her. But the jury believed the prosecution’s theory, that she killed him with a kitchen knife so she could steal his credit card.

She was convicted of first-degree murder and sent away to prison — at age 17 — for the rest of her life — with no chance of parole.

Fast forward to 2012 and the U. S. Supreme Court decision. Gov. Terry Branstad was mulling over how to respond to the decision; in particular, he was trying to find some way to protect all of us Iowans from those teen-age murderers he feared might have a parole hearing and be released from prison.

There were 38 of them. They ranged in age from about 17 to almost 60. The earliest conviction happened back in 1972; the latest, in 2010.

And then the governor hit on it. He’d circumvent the Supreme Court ruling by using his executive power to commute every one of those life sentences to 60 years. He’d done the math. He knew “60 years” meant that none would even qualify for a parole hearing until they were, on average, at least 75.

In other words, his “commutation” was just another way of saying “life without parole.”

But it didn’t work quite like the governor figured because in 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Branstad’s “60-year” sentence was contrary to the U. S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision because it was “the practical equivalent of mandatory life without parole.”

Not long after that, the Iowa highest courts went even further, throwing out all mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles, saying, in the words of Chief Justice Mark Cady, “A statute that sends all juvenile offenders to prison for a minimum period of time under all circumstances simply cannot satisfy standards of decency and fairness .”

Which brings us to Louisell.

In January 2014, Louisell came before District Court Judge James Ellefson in Nevada for a resentencing because of those decisions by the U. S. Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme Court … and the rejection of Branstad’s “60-year” standard … and the failure of the Iowa Legislature and the Board of Parole to sort out sentencing requirements for juveniles.

So the judge, because there was no guidance from any other authority, stepped into the breach and come up with his own solution. He downgraded Louisell’s penalty to the same as for a Class B felony (up to 25 years in prison), and, on the spot, sentenced Louisell to 25 years in prison. And because she had already spent 28 years in prison, it meant she was immediately eligible for parole.

Ellefson’s decision was quickly appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court by the Iowa Attorney General who acknowledged that while there was a sentencing “vacuum” in Iowa, a judge couldn’t fill it. Only the Legislature could. Iowa’s highest court is expected to decide the matter before the summer is out.

Meanwhile, Louisell waits in the women’s prison in Mitchellville. A woman from Des Moines who has known her for years has offered to take her in. An electrician in Polk City has a job waiting for her.

DICK HAWS is a journalist and retired Iowa State University professor, has lived in Ames for 30 years. Contact him at