Felony-murder rule can be applied to juveniles, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the felony-murder rule may be applied to juvenile offenders in a decision upholding the sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for a defendant who was 16 at the time of the crime.

Keyon Harrison was found guilty by a Polk County jury of first-degree murder for his role in the robbery and murder of a marijuana dealer. Prosecutors conceded at trial that the evidence suggested it was Harrison’s 17-year-old companion, not Harrison, who fatally shot the victim. But Harrison was found guilty of aiding and abetting the robbery and murder, and that is the equivalent of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule.

The Court, in a 4-2 decision, ruled that using the felony-murder rule against a juvenile violates neither the U.S. nor the Iowa Constitution. The majority opinion was written by Justice Bruce Zager joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman.  Justice Brent Appel filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The felony-murder rule, which has ancient roots in common law, is codified in Chapter 707 of the Iowa Code and transforms forcible felonies such as robbery into first-degree murder if a person is killed in the course of the felony, regardless of intent or premeditation.

By arguing the felony-murder rule is unconstitutional for juveniles, the Court said Harrison is asking for greater due-process rights for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. But the justices drew a distinction between criminal offenses and criminal sentences applied to juveniles.

While the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that juveniles are “constitutionally different from adults,” the Court has never held that the elements of criminal offenses should be transformed to account for that difference, Zager wrote. Quoting from an earlier decision, he said the Court’s “constitutional analysis is not about excusing juvenile behavior, but imposing punishment in a way that is consistent with our understanding of humanity today.” This is achieved with individualized sentencing, Zager wrote.

While Harrison argues that life in prison is “grossly disproportionate” in his case, he was immediately eligible for parole, thus benefitting from the Court’s 2016 decision in State v. Sweet that held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The Parole Board provides juvenile offenders individualized analysis of the conditions of their past lives and their progress toward rehabilitation in deciding whether to approve early release, which Zager said is consistent with the Court’s approach to juvenile sentencing.

In his dissent, Justice Appel framed the Harrison case stark terms:

“The question in this case is whether an unarmed child may be subject to life in prison with the possibility of parole for participating in a marijuana robbery where a coparticipant brought a gun to the crime and killed the robbery victim.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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