By Christopher Zoukis
The Iowa Supreme Court on March 9, 2018 clarified a recent state law on sentencing juveniles who commit first-degree murder, considering the case of 34-year-old, Rene Zarate, serving a life sentence for a murder he committed in 1999, when he was just 15.
Zarate and other youths were drinking beer in a trailer in which Jorge Ramos, a 47-year-old Peruvian immigrant rented a room. When Ramos came home to the trailer at about 1 a.m., he quarreled with the boys, which led to a fight. Zarate stabbed Ramos about 50 times with a fishing knife he found in the trailer. After a jury trial, Zarate was convicted and sentenced in 2001, receiving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
As far back as 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (in Roper v. Simmons) capital punishment was “cruel and unusual” for minors, violating the Eighth Amendment, due to young offenders’ immaturity, susceptibility to peer and outside pressure, and a capacity for reform greater than that of older, more hardened criminals. In 2010, the high court held, in Graham v. Florida, that states could not sentence juveniles to life without opportunity of parole for convictions for crimes less serious than homicide. While eventual release was not guaranteed, those convicted for crimes they committed while juveniles must be given a realistic opportunity to win release at some point before the end of their lifetime term.
In two additional cases (Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs) decided in 2012, the Supreme Court tightened its restrictions on lifetime sentences without opportunity for parole to apply even to juveniles who had committed first-degree murder. Now, even for juveniles convicted of murder, sentencing judges must be permitted to take into account the offender’s age and other relevant factors. It was left to the states to figure out what restrictions they would place on parole; unsurprisingly, not all states agreed on how to comply with the Miller and Jackson decisions. Until the Supreme Court in its 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana decision decided the issue could be raised retroactively, some states allowed already-incarcerated inmates to petition courts to change their sentences, but about half the states opted not to do so.
Zarate, then an Iowa prison inmate in his early ’30s, asked for a revised sentence in line with the Miller decision. A lower court judge made Zarate eligible for parole after 25 years, and gave him credit for the time he had already served. But the Iowa Supreme Court’s most recent decision (State v. Zarate) unanimously vacated that new sentence, saying the lower court judge had voice his own view the gory circumstances of the crime required imposition of a lengthy minimum sentence. In doing so, he ignored the state law’s required assumption an inmate convicted of murder committed as a juvenile deserves an individualized examination not just of his crime, but his background and his progress towards rehabilitation.
Since being incarcerated, there was evidence Zarate had been a model prisoner, so he would be given a new hearing and a new sentence. Three members of the high court’s seven members added they’d like the state to go further towards eliminating mandatory sentence terms for juvenile offenders.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.