State v. Null




Iowa Supreme Court

Citation and Year

836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

IOWA CONST. art. 1, § 17 (“cruel and unusual punishment”)

Nature of Case

At the time of State v. Null, youth sentencing in the U.S. was undergoing a transformational shift. Null’s case reached the Iowa Supreme Court in 2012 just months after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for youth under 18. In Miller, the Court said that youth LWOP should be “rare” and required sentencing courts to consider the mitigating characteristics of youth before imposing it. In a previous case, Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned all life without parole sentences for youth in non-homicide cases.

In this case, Null had been sentenced to a minimum of 52.5 years for a crime that he committed when he was 16 years old. Because Null had not been sentenced to LWOP, he did not have the benefit of individualized sentencing as required by Miller. Null argued that his term-of-years sentence exceeding 50 years amounted to de facto life without parole, and that the same protections based on the mitigating attributes of youth should apply. This case thus presented the question that many courts around the nation faced post-Miller: whether under the 8th Amendment or state constitutional analogs, does Miller extend to terms-of-years sentences that are so long they amount to de facto life without the possibility of parole?


The Iowa Constitution’s antipunishment clause effectively extends Miller to de facto life sentences for youth; it requires “an individualized sentencing hearing to determine the issue of parole eligibility” for juveniles sentenced to lengthy, but less than life, sentences.


Here, the court reasoned that though Null was not technically given a life sentence, his 52-year minimum was enough to require, as a matter of law, the same individualized sentencing as described in Graham and Miller: “[W]e do not regard the juvenile’s potential future release in his or her late sixties after a half century of incarceration sufficient to escape the rationales of Graham or Miller. The prospect of geriatric release, if one is to be afforded the opportunity for release at all, does not provide a “meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate the “maturity and rehabilitation” required to obtain release and reenter society…”

The court recognized that the core rationale of both Graham and Miller applies just as well to youth who face decades in prison without any chance of release: “because children are constitutionally different from adults, they ordinarily cannot be held to the same standard of culpability as adults in criminal sentencing.” The court notes that juveniles generally lack maturity, possess an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are vulnerable to peer pressure, and have a less fixed nature of their character. The court also instructs that these “typical characteristics of youth” are to be regarded as mitigating, not aggravating factors. If, at the discretion of a sentencing court, the court believes that the general and presumed youth-vs-adult distinction should not apply, the court is to make specific findings supporting their position.

Second, the court instructed sentencing courts to “recognize that most juveniles who engage in criminal activity are not destined to become lifelong criminals.” Because “juveniles are more capable of change than are adults… their actions are less likely to be evidence of ‘irretrievably depraved character.’”