Dorsey v. State, 19-1917

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMcDONALD, JUSTICE
PartiesJAMES ELVIN DORSEY, Petitioner, v. STATE OF IOWA, Respondent.
Decision Date10 June 2022
Docket Number19-1917

JAMES ELVIN DORSEY, Petitioner,
v.

STATE OF IOWA, Respondent.

No. 19-1917

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 10, 2022


Submitted February 22, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Robert B. Hanson, Judge.

The appellant challenges the constitutionality of his sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI GRANTED AND WRIT ANNULLED.

Alexander Smith (argued) of Parrish Kruidenier Gentry Brown Bergmann & Messamer L.L.P., Des Moines, for petitioner.

1

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven (argued), Assistant Attorney General, for respondent.

McDonald, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which

Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Mansfield, Oxley, and McDermott, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

2

McDONALD, JUSTICE

Petitioner James Dorsey shot and killed a woman when he was eighteen years and five days old. He was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dorsey contends this sentence violates his state constitutional right to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment." Iowa Const. art. I, § 17. He argues the state constitution prohibits imposing a mandatory punishment on a young adult offender and instead requires the district court to hold an individualized sentencing hearing before imposing any sentence. He further argues his life sentence without the possibility of parole is grossly disproportionate to the crime. For the reasons expressed below, we affirm Dorsey's sentence.

I.

On September 3, 1984, Dorsey, accompanied by two other men, entered the Des Moines home of Juanita Weaver with a shotgun. Dorsey went to Weaver's home to retrieve a revolver that Dorsey and Weaver's son had previously stolen from Dorsey's uncle. After Dorsey entered the home, he realized Weaver's son was not there. Weaver went into the living room upon hearing noises in the home and came upon Dorsey and the two other men. Dorsey fired at Weaver and missed. Weaver ran into the bathroom, and Dorsey followed, where he shot Weaver at close range and killed her. The three men fled the scene and went to a party but were eventually arrested. A jury found Dorsey guilty of murder in the first degree, and the district court sentenced Dorsey to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

3

In the nearly thirty-eight years since the murder, Dorsey has challenged his conviction and resulting mandatory life sentence on numerous occasions. His conviction was first affirmed on direct appeal in February 1986. In September 1986, Dorsey filed two separate but overlapping applications for postconviction relief. The applications were treated as a single application and dismissed as meritless in March 1994. Dorsey filed a second application for postconviction relief in November 1994, which the district court dismissed as time-barred. Dorsey filed his third and fourth applications for postconviction relief in January 1999 and October 2008, which were also dismissed as time-barred.

In January 2014, Dorsey filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in the underlying criminal case. In that motion, he contended that his mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole inflicted cruel and unusual punishment upon him in violation of the Federal and State Constitutions. In support of his argument, Dorsey relied on United States Supreme Court precedents stating that juvenile offenders have diminished culpability and better chances for reform and that "the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders" are diminished and, in some instances, categorically prohibited. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 472 (2012); see id. at 489 ("By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory-sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of

4

proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 82 (2010) ("The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. A State need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term."); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) ("The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed."). Dorsey recognized that he was not a juvenile at the time of the offense, but he argued "[t]he courts in Iowa are expanding on the ruling of the United States Supreme Court" by applying the same rationale in other contexts. The district court denied the motion. Although Dorsey raised both a federal and state constitutional claim in his motion, the district court's order referenced only the federal claim.

The filing at issue in this case is Dorsey's fifth application for postconviction relief. In his application, Dorsey argued that his mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole violated the federal and state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. In support of his claims, Dorsey relied on this court's more recent juvenile sentencing jurisprudence applying and extending Roper v. Miller, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama. See generally State v. Roby, 897 N.W.2d 127 (Iowa 2017); State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d 811 (Iowa 2016); State v. Louisell, 865 N.W.2d 590 (Iowa 2015); State v. Seats, 865 N.W.2d 545 (Iowa 2015); State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378 (Iowa 2014);

5

State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa 2013); State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88 (Iowa 2013); State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013). Dorsey relied specifically on State v. Lyle, in which this court held that "all mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment for youthful offenders are unconstitutional under the cruel and unusual punishment clause in article I, section 17 of our constitution." 854 N.W.2d at 400. He also relied on State v. Sweet, which created "a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution." 879 N.W.2d at 839. In his application, Dorsey recognized that these holdings explicitly applied only to juvenile offenders, but he argued the cases should be extended or their holdings modified to provide relief for young adult offenders. He argued Lyle and Sweet should preclude the imposition of mandatory punishments on young adult offenders and should require individualized sentencing hearings for all young adult offenders, including those convicted of murder in the first degree.

The district court declined to provide Dorsey any relief and granted the State's motion for summary disposition of the claims. The district court held Dorsey's application for postconviction relief was barred by the three-year statute of limitations set forth in Iowa Code section 822.3 (2019). The district court also concluded that, to the extent Dorsey's claims could be considered a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the claims were barred res judicata because Dorsey raised the same claims in his 2014 motion to correct an illegal sentence. Finally, the district court concluded that Dorsey was not entitled to any relief on the

6

merits because Lyle and Sweet applied only to juvenile offenders and not adult offenders. Dorsey timely filed his notice of appeal, and we retained the case.

II.

When an offender files an application for postconviction relief and "complains his sentence is illegal . . . the claim 'is not a postconviction relief action.'" Bonilla v. State, 791 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Iowa 2010) (quoting Veal v. State, 779 N.W.2d 63, 65 (Iowa 2010)). Instead, the application for postconviction relief is treated as a motion to correct an illegal sentence. Id. at 699-700. We therefore construe Dorsey's application for postconviction relief as a motion to correct an illegal sentence. There is no appeal as a matter of right from the denial of a motion to correct an illegal sentence. See State v. Propps, 897 N.W.2d 91, 96-97 (Iowa 2017). However, when a case is initiated by a notice of appeal, but another form of review is proper, we need not dismiss the action and may proceed instead as though the proper form of review was requested. Iowa R. App. P. 6.108. We treat Dorsey's "notice of appeal and accompanying briefs as a petition for writ of certiorari, as we conclude that appeals from a motion to correct an illegal sentence are most appropriately fashioned in this manner. We grant the petition for writ of certiorari." Propps, 897 N.W.2d at 97.

III.

The district court denied Dorsey's challenge to his mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole on three grounds. First, the district court held that Dorsey's application for postconviction relief was barred by the three-year statute of limitations set forth in Iowa Code section 822.3. Second, the district

7

court held Dorsey's claims were barred res judicata because Dorsey had raised the same claims in his 2014 motion to correct an illegal sentence. Finally, the district court concluded that Dorsey was not entitled to any relief on the merits. We address each ruling in turn.

A.

The statute of limitations governing postconviction-relief proceedings does not bar Dorsey's constitutional challenge to his sentence. In general, an application for postconviction relief "must be filed within three years from the date the conviction or decision is final or, in the event of an appeal, from the date the writ of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT