Two Women Previously Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Iowa Obtain Relief


Kristina Fetters

Kristina Fetters was sentenced to die in prison for a crime at 14 years old. After the United States Supreme Court banned mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentences for juveniles like Kristina, she was resentenced last month. Now 33 and suffering from cancer, Kristina was released from prison last week to hospice care.

Kristina is one of only two girls who were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the State of Iowa for an offense that occurred at age 14. Life without parole is the mandatory sentence in Iowa for first-degree murder, and Kristina was sentenced without any consideration of her extremely young age or the circumstances that led to the tragic killing of her aunt, whom she dearly loved.

In 2008, EJI attorneys filed a petition challenging Kristina’s sentence as cruel and unusual punishment that violated the Constitution and Iowa law. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida held that key differences between children and adults must be considered in sentencing, and in 2012, the Court in Miller v. Alabama banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. This summer, the Iowa Supreme Court held that Miller applies retroactively to cases like Kristina’s.

Then, as Kristina was preparing for a new sentencing hearing this fall, she became gravely ill and was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer. On November 21, the Polk County District Court resentenced her to life with possibility of parole and recommended that she be paroled immediately. On December 3, the parole board granted Kristina parole to a hospice in Des Moines, where she can be near her family. She was released from prison on December 10, marking the first release of a person sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile in Iowa.

The other 14-year-old girl sentenced to die in prison in Iowa, Ruthann Veal, has also received a new sentence under the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller. LIke Kristina’s sentence, Ruthann’s sentence was mandatory; the sentencing judge could not consider her young age or any of the facts about her abusive, dysfunctional family in determining the appropriate sentence.

EJI attorneys filed a petition to challenge Ruthann’s sentence as unconstitutional and argued that it is cruel and unusual punishment to condemn a young child to die in prison. On December 9, 2013, Ruthann was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Now 35 years old, Ruthann has served more than 20 years in prison. Among her rehabilitative programs and activities at the prison, Ruthann volunteers in the prison hospice unit, where she cares for terminally ill women including – until her release last week – Kristina Fetters.