More Defendants Challenging Governor's Mandatory 60 Years for Convicted Juvenile Lifers
By Trish Mehaffey, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Two men convicted in Linn County for murder as juveniles and serving life sentences without parole are asking the court to correct their illegal sentences based on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and claim Gov. Terry Branstad's action to commute sentences violates the separation of powers.
David Keegan, 28, of Marion, and Jose Ruesga, 37, of Polk County, both convicted of first-degree murder as 17-year-olds, filed motions Wednesday, claiming their sentences are illegal according to this summer's U.S. Supreme Court case banning life sentences without parole for juveniles. The court ruled sentences without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause.
The motions also claim Branstad's action to commute all the Iowa juvenile offenders life sentences to a mandatory 60 years before being eligible for parole violates the principles of the separation of powers by creating a criminal sentence that didn't exist and wasn't enacted by the legislature. The commutation action also interferes with the task of the Iowa Board of Parole, which is created by the legislature and determines parole or work release for offenders.
The motions contend Branstad's mandatory 60, given life expectancy of offenders, is basically a life sentence and doesn't allow for individualized sentencing as required in the supreme court ruling. The justices said the sentencing judge must consider all pertinent factors, including age, education, employment, life experiences and home environment.
Keegan, was convicted as a 17-year-old in 2002 for first-degree murder and second-degree robbery. He slit the throat of Greg Wells, who was delivering pizza to Keegan's Marion apartment, according to trial testimony. Keegan's co-defendant, Brandy Byrd, 21 at the time, was also convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery. She hit Wells in the head with a hammer several times. The two also took Keegan's money and his old car.
Ruesga was 24 when he was convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend's son Jonathan Waller but he was 17 when the actual crime was committed. Ruesga beat the boy over 10 days in March 1992, resulting in severe head injuries, according to trial testimony. Waller didn't die until 1997 of pneumonia, which was determined as a complication from his other injuries.
When Waller died, Ruesga was already serving 40 years for pleading guilty in 1992 to child endangerment of Waller.
The Ruesga case was transferred to Linn County from Polk on a change of venue.
Chief Public Defender Michael Adams, of the Special Defense Unit in Des Moines, said Thursday there have been several other motions filed around the state regarding juvenile life sentences that have cited the same issues as these two cases. He didn't know an exact number.
Jeffrey Ragland, 44, convicted for the 1986 Council Bluffs murder of 19-year-old Timothy Sieff, is the first defendant to be re-sentenced who raised the issue about Branstad's commutation. He was re-sentenced in August to life with parole in Pottawattamie County, Adams said.
Ragland's fate is now up to the parole board which could parole him next week or next year if they deem it.
Fourth District Judge Timothy O'Grady said during the hearing the life sentence without parole was cruel and unusual punishment, according to SouthwestIowaNews.com. O'Grady said that Branstad's commutation doesn't fit with the intent of Iowa law, which says a person under age 18 who commits a Class A felony is eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison. Ragland was 17 at the time of Sieff's murder.
Sieff died of head injuries after being struck with a tire iron during a fight in a supermarket parking lot, according to SouthwestIowaNews.com
What's On KCRG