Bryan Stevenson argued at the Iowa Supreme Court today in Veal v. State that sentencing a 14-year-old child to life imprisonment without possibility of parole violates state and federal constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.
This is the first case heard by the Iowa Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of sentencing young adolescents to life in prison without parole.
EJI argues that it is particularly cruel to sentence children to die in prison because — as the United States Supreme Court has recognized — children are less culpable than adults and they are likely to change and rehabilitate as they grow up.
It is also unusual to sentence a young teen to life without parole. Nationwide, only 73 people are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed at 13 or 14 years old.
Ruthann Veal is one of only three people sentenced to die in prison in Iowa for an offense at age 14. Her sentencing judge could not take into account that Ruthann was born to abusive, alcoholic parents who violently beat her because Iowa law makes life-without-parole sentences mandatory for certain offenses.
EJI is challenging Ruthann’s sentence as part of its project to eliminate life-without-parole sentences for young adolescents. At the United States Supreme Court last November, EJI argued that these sentences are unconstitutional in Sullivan v. Florida. The Court’s decision in Sullivan is expected this spring.