Justice for juvenile offenders denied, as Louisell waits in prison

Dick Haws
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They say the wheels of justice turn slowly, but sometimes, I wonder if those wheels haven’t just about seized up.

Back in June 2012, the U. S. Supreme Court decided that automatically sentencing juvenile first-degree murderers to life in prison with no chance of parole was cruel and unusual because it amounted to the death penalty. Those juveniles were released only through death. Every last one of them. “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. Let me remind you, that Supreme Court decision came down three years ago. And three years is a long time, especially if you’re behind bars.

Which brings us to Yvette Louisell, an inmate of the women’s prison in Mitchellville and a 2009 graduate of Iowa State University. She’s believed to be only the second woman in Iowa history to earn a bachelor’s degree while imprisoned, and, very likely, the Iowa prison system’s first and only magna cum laude graduate. Louisell entered the women’s prison back in 1987, sentenced there as a 17-year-old for the remainder of her natural life — with no chance of parole.

You’d probably think that Louisell, because of that U. S. Supreme Court decision, would have gotten her chance at some point during these intervening three years to have a hearing before the Iowa Parole Board, which would have been an important step toward her possible release. Had she had such a hearing, she no doubt would have told them about that college degree she earned, about her training as an electrician’s helper, about her numerous artistic, musical and religious activities while in prison. I’m betting she also would have told them about her tough background, about her mother’s mental illness, about moving from house to house to house, about not attending the same school for more than two years, about her grandmother becoming her legal guardian. Letters of support, I’m sure, would have been entered into the record, including ones from the Story County attorney who prosecuted her and the Iowa district judge who presided at her trial. Neither letter would have opposed her release.

Louisell no doubt would have said she was no longer the impulsive, angry teenager she was when she entered prison 28 years earlier, that she had matured and was now prepared to live on the outside: A job and a place to live await her. But that hearing never happened. Since 2012, only one of Iowa’s teen-age murderers has had a hearing and been placed on parole, and that happened for an unusual reason: That teen-age murderer had terminal cancer and died soon after release.

You see, Iowa, despite its reputation for “niceness,” hasn’t been the nicest of places for juveniles who’ve been convicted of first-degree murder because, in Iowa, you are only released for your funeral. You saw the challenge these lifers face in Gov. Terry Branstad’s response to that 2012 Supreme Court decision. The governor quickly decided he needed 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 in accordance with that high court decision. There were 38 of them. The first of them had been convicted back in 1972; the latest, in 2010. They ranged in age from about 17 to almost 60.

And then the governor hit on it. He’d circumvent the Supreme Court ruling by using his executive authority to commute every one of those life sentences to 60 years. He’d done his arithmetic. He knew “60 years” meant that none would even qualify for a parole hearing until they were, on average, at least 75. Louisell would be 77.

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 functional equivalent of mandatory life without parole.” Not long after that, the Iowa high court 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. . . .”

Things have changed a lot since Louisell came to Iowa 28 years ago from Kalamazoo, Mich., recruited to ISU as a 17-year-old high school honor student. The dorm where she lived, Westgate Hall, was knocked down years ago. And ISU’s Memorial Union, where she posed nude in a non-credit drawing class open to anybody in town, would never allow a juvenile to do such a thing today.

It was through that Memorial Union class that Louisell became a lifer. There she met Keith Stilwell, a 42-year-old budget analyst at the National Animal Disease Laboratory in Ames. Stilwell, a paraplegic from a high school wrestling accident, and Louisell became friends. He’d invite her over to his little bungalow on the northside of Ames. 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 girl in the newspaper. (Louisell had posed for the photographs soon after arriving on campus.) Her defense was that she stabbed Stilwell when he attacked her. But the jury believed the prosecution’s theory, that she attacked him with a kitchen knife and then stole his credit card. She was convicted and sent away to prison — at age 17 — for the rest of her life — with no chance of parole.

Flash forward 28 years, to last Friday. The Iowa Supreme Court released its opinion regarding the state’s appeal of a decision made by Iowa District Court Judge James Ellefson who, in the absence of new sentencing requirements for juvenile first-degree murderers (Iowa had had three years to do something, after all), stepped into the breach and did something. He downgraded Louisell’s sentence to 25 years, which, because she was already well past that many years in Mitchellville, made her immediately eligible for parole.

Ellefson’s decision had been quickly appealed 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. The Supreme Court found that the attorney general’s position would prevail, the 25-year-year sentence would be set aside and, in its place, Louisell would be sentenced to “life in prison with eligibility for parole.” Maybe that “eligibility for parole” will come to mean something, maybe it won’t. We’ll see. In Iowa, you don’t know.

Meanwhile, Louisell remains in Mitchellville, waiting.

DICK HAWS is a retired retired journalism professor at Iowa State University.

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