In July of 2012, I wrote about Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad’s decision to commute the life without parole sentences of 38 people sentenced as juveniles. The governor made this decision on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling in June regarding the unconstitionality of mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences.
Without considering each of the individual thirty-eight cases in detail, and without becoming intimately familiar with the people who committed those crimes as teenagers, the governor commuted every single one of those sentences to a mandatory minimum of 60 years before the person is given the opportunity to seek parole. I pointed out in the summer that this meant a person who committed a crime at the age of 15 would not be eligible for parole until he or she was 75-years-old.
What the governor did was reprehensible because instead of respecting a decision made by the highest authority in this nation, he chose to bypass the ruling by finding a way to deny those it affected in his state from seeking any kind of relief – regardless of the circumstances surrounding the crime, the person’s age when the crime was committed, and other potentially mitigating factors.
However, all decisions have consequences. Though governor Branstad is in a position of power that grants him considerable authority, it turns out his decision may not have been any more legal than it was moral. I plan to tell you more about that, but before I do I want to discuss one of the cases his actions have influenced directly. Following the governor’s appalling choice to commute the sentences to a 60 year minimum I began to wonder about those thirty-eight people who were condemned to spend the rest of their natural life in prison for crimes committed as youth.
When the governor went public with his decision he declared that in addition to protecting the victims associated with the crimes, he was also ensuring “the safety of all Iowans”. I was curious to know who these people were that the governor seemed to think were so violent and monstrous as teenagers that they were beyond any and all hope of rehabilitation. There’s no question that some people belong in prison and that some are simply not amenable to any kind of rehabilitation or compassion the world has to offer, but can that be said of all people who commit crimes? Should it be said, without taking the time to consider each individual case? Governor Branstad thinks yes, but he faces some serious opposition.
I’ll let you decide.
The Case of Christine Lockheart
In 1985, Christine Marie Lockheart was convicted of “aiding and abetting, and first-degree robbery”. Christine was 17-years-old when she was charged with these crimes. Subsequent to her conviction, Christine received a life without parole sentence. In 2005, she applied for a commutation of sentence that was denied by the parole board in a 5-0 decision against the recommendation. If the Iowa Board of Parole approves a commutation request it is then sent to the governor for final approval – the same governor who pulled a fast one and commuted all mandatory life without parole sentences given to juveniles to 60 years.
In 2010, Christine filed a motion claiming that her sentence of life without the possibility of parole, given to her as a juvenile, was “cruel and unusual punishment”. She was scheduled to have a hearing in August of 2010, but it was canceled a day after the Supreme Court came back regarding non-homicide life without parole sentences (Graham v. Florida). The timing was suspicious and Christine responded by filing a motion asking the court to reconsider the cancellation. That too was denied. The court then denied a request for an evidentiary hearing “to determine facts and circumstances particular to Lockheart and her sentence.”
She recently applied for commutation again and was denied.
The above delineate the legal aspects of her case in terms of how Christine and her attorney have fought the life sentence given to her so many years ago. Christine is no longer the 17-year-old teenager she was when she was first charged. Behind bars she has grown into an adult woman who is passionate about justice issues and unusually knowledgable about what is happening in the world beyond the walls that confine her.
I interviewed Christine at length about her charges, her experiences in prison, the ways she has worked toward growing as a person despite her sentence, and many other topics. I discussed her case with her attorney and one of her staunchest supporters. I also talked to Christine about the governor’s decision and how it has affected her case in particular.
The crime involved a man in his late seventies by the name of Floyd Brown. Christine was dating 24-year-old Rick Nebinger at the time. The two went to Floyd’s house one evening to obtain money. Because Christine and Floyd knew each other through the elderly man’s granddaughter, he opened the door to the couple. The three talked for a bit and then Rick instructed Christine to go outside to wait for him.
Christine did as she was asked and waited for quite some time before she observed Rick running from the home, screaming. He told Christine he had murdered Floyd and the two fled to a friend’s home. It was not long before the police found the two and charged them with murder and robbery.
Rick Nebringer was convicted and sentenced to prison as well. He died between the Supreme Court’s ruling in June and the governor’s commutation of the thirty-eight people’s sentences. The commutation decision affected both Rick and Christine. Technically speaking, Christine has now served more time than her co-defendant who committed the actual murder.
Christine does not view herself as a victim. She does not deny her involvement or place blame on others. She takes full responsibility for the choices she made as a minor. When she talks about the events leading up to the crime that ultimately resulted in a life sentence she is remorseful. She seems haunted by her inability to step back into the past so that she can change the decisions she made on that one particularly fateful night. However, Christine is also a realist and she knows she cannot change the past. This is perhaps one of the factors giving impetus to her desire to better herself.
I asked Christine how the governor’s decision has influenced her efforts when it comes to receiving a resentencing hearing. The Supreme Court’s June decision (Miller v. Alabama) was intended to give people like Christine the opportunity to receive such a hearing. The court would then consider each case individually to determine if an alternative sentence, other than life without parole, was warranted based on the circumstances surrounding the case, the person’s behavior in prison, and their efforts to grow as a person since the offense. Because of the governor’s decision to commute Christine’s sentence automatically (as well as the sentences of 37 others), she no longer has the ability to seek such a hearing.
That is, unless her attorney is able to successfully argue that the governor’s decision was unconstitutional. This may not be as unlikely a feat as it seems though. There are now five cases pending in the Iowa Supreme Court that are challenging Governor Branstad and arguing that his decision was unconstitutional. Christine explained to me that “several District Court Judges have already agreed that the Governor’s commutation to a 60 year mandatory minimum is unconstitutional.”
Another case to come up before the Iowa courts as recently as this month is that of Yvette Louisell. Yvette is currently 42-years-old and was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for a crime she committed when she was a teen. Today Yvette has a number of people who support her and approximately 20 of them showed up at a hearing for her on January 16th. One told the media that she feels “there are just too many mitigating circumstances that weren’t considered in her original trial.” She also pointed out that Yvette did not have the benefit of a good upbringing to help guide her in making moral decisions.
Christine has a bevy of supporters as well. She has a sharp and well-informed attorney who has taken up her cause from a legal perspective. She also has many outside of prison who care for her a great deal. Veronica Horowitz, for example, met Christine when she was serving a much shorter sentence in prison. “At the time,” she explained to me, “Christine worked in the prison as an inmate mentor and was one of the mentors who taught my orientation class. I thought Christine was very kind and sweet. I had a hard time understanding how she had received a murder conviction.” She acknowledged that at the time she did not know the specifics of Christine’s crime because it is rare for people who are serving life sentences to convey those details to others with whom they serve time.
Veronica got to know Christine over time, however. She and Christine spent a great deal of time talking about different issues, including recidivism among those who are released from incarceration. She told me that it was Christine who helped Veronica shape the topic she plans to eventually write her doctoral dissertation on. She explained a number of times how much of an inspiration Christine has been on her and how that influence has inspired her in positive ways. Veronica now describes Christine as “kind and positive. She is friendly and smiles often.” Christine’s pleasant demeanor is one of the qualities that drew the two women together as friends.
“Christine has a tremendous impact on my life,” Veronica said. “She opened my eyes to injustices that I hadn’t fathomed before learning her story. Christine game me insight and inspiration that I am certain will help me as I continue my education.” She is adamant that Christine does not deserve to die in prison and that she is a woman who deserves a second chance.
Veronica started a petition on Christine’s behalf, asking the governor and the Iowa Board of Parole to grant Christine parole eligibility. The petition, located here on change.org, currently has 281 signatures.
She wants people to understand that “just because a person is eligible for parole does not mean that individual will be paroled. If a person does not demonstrate that he or she is ready to return to society without endangering others then that person will not receive parole even if they are eligible.” She also added that she thinks it is “cruel and inhumane to take all hope away from a person.”
I spoke to Christine’s attorney, Gordon “Gordy” Allen, to glean further insight into the legal battle being waged within the state of Iowa. He explained that he got involved in Christine’s case after a friend contacted him and asked him to get involved. Allen previously served as the Deputy Attorney General of Iowa for 25 years.
He told me that the governor’s decision to commute is “contrary to Miller which discussed mandatory sentences and required individual consideration of facts and circumstances to make the punishment fit the criminal as well as the crime.” He cited the governor’s decision as uniform in that it did not consider each person individually, but rather treated all 38 people affected by the decision as though their circumstances were identical.
He went on to state, “We – the lawyers advising this group and two district court judges that have rules, and one country attorney who files a brief – believe the governor’s action violates Miller in that respect. We also think the mandatory minimum of 60 years is a de facto life sentence without a reasonable option for parole and is therefore illegal as well.” He added, “His elimination of the credit for good time is also a violation of the separation of powers clause of the Constitution in that he has sentenced these offenders to a greater term than is mandated by the Miller decision.”
In reference to the governor’s actions he said, “His is not an exercise of clemency, his is an exercise of vengeance.”
Allen expressed that this issue is very important to him. He pointed out, “Even those states that have capital punishment do not execute the mentally challenged defendants, or those who committed crimes while juveniles. We are the only country in the world that still sentences children to death in prison, other than Somalia of course, and they don’t have a government.” He referenced the United Nations Covenant on the Rights of the Child and the United States’ refusal to ratify the treaty as nearly 200 other nations have done.
He concluded our interview by making a bold, yet accurate statement. “Those who by reason of life experience, and neurological deficits attendant to adolescence should not be punished with the most egregious punishment meted out by Iowa, when they were according to the science, less culpable than any other adult.”
Hoping against Hope
Christine and her son
Christine has made the most of her time behind bars. In the face of an impossibly harsh sentence she continues to strive to become a better person in all ways, including emotionally, spiritually, and academically. She told me she is currently attending the University of Iowa to obtain a Bachelor of Liberal Studies. “I take classes only with the help of scholarships and friends and family. I am grateful for the blessing of this gift,” she said. “Without it I would have spent my life without an education. Long term offenders do not qualify for college funding because there is just no money for it and it just does not make financial sense to educate a person is likely to never use it as they are expected to remain in prison forever.”
“At seventeen,” Christine said, “I was a throwaway, so I am not intended by the government to ever need an education.”As a teenager Christine was pregnant and gave birth to a son. “Kids don’t even really know about adult responsibilities,” she said. “They just think they do and want to. I was pregnant and even had a child, but I just didn’t have any idea about raising a son or what he needed or what responsibility I had undertaken.” She pointed out that when juveniles are sent to adult prison they are not given the tools to develop into functional adults, but are “really just warehoused.”
In addition to working towards her BLS, Christine also takes time to help others by listening to them and providing guidance when possible. She always tries to remain optimistic, but sometimes finds it difficult to cope with the reality of her situation. “I get down and get sick of prison – sometimes more than I really should because I am blessed so much more than other lifers.”
Christine talked at length about her desire to make the environment around her better, even if it is limited to the prison grounds upon which she resides. She explained, “This prison is made on one quarter of a mile of land that I have only left four times in almost three decades, but it is also a beautiful stretch of trees, grass, flowers – and once or twice a frog or two – and I have crawled it and fixed things all over it to make it better over and over as much as I can, whenever I can, and I know that is the best I can do.”
Veronica hopes to raise further awareness about Christine’s plight. She would like people to know that Christine “is a wonderful person who truly deserves a second chance.” She also wants “people to become aware of the crime she committed and the sentence imposed on her because I think her case speaks for itself in that any reasonable person would realize that Christine does not deserve to die in prison for merely failing to turn in her boyfriend after he committed a crime. I want people to realize that juvenile courts were separated from adult courts for a reason; because children are not as developed and culpable as adults, regardless of the crime they commit, juveniles should be treated differently, the trend towards trying juveniles as adults needs to stop.”
If you are moved by Christine’s story and feel compelled to help her there are a few ways to do it. The first is to sign Veronica’s petition for Christine, located here. The second is to write letters to the Iowa Board of Parole using the following address:
Iowa Board of Parole
Attn: A. Meulhaupt
510 East 12th Street, Suite 3
Des Moines, Iowa 50319
Letters sent on Christine’s behalf must include her full name and offender number – Christine Lockheart 0801319.
Christine reflected on all that has happened to her toward the end of our discussion. “I don’t know why I had to come here or stay here this long, or why I didn’t have a different life than this, but I really hold out for the hope that I am going to have the chance to work to make a life for myself that is better than this. Maybe I remain this way for the people who don’t give up on me – the other lifers who don’t have any chance – or my sister who has stood beside me or the friends I have who have never given up on me – and maybe it’s the seventeen-year-old girl who screwed it all up and still hopes for a chance to make it right for everyone.”
I believe Christine does deserve a second chance at life. She has already been incarcerated for more than half her life. I can only hope that after reading this you feel as I do.