Werts v. Iowa Bd. of Parole, 22-0127

CourtCourt of Appeals of Iowa
Writing for the CourtBOWER, CHIEF JUDGE.
PartiesLEANN FAYE WERTS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. IOWA BOARD OF PAROLE, Defendant-Appellee.
Docket Number22-0127
Decision Date17 November 2022

LEANN FAYE WERTS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.

IOWA BOARD OF PAROLE, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 22-0127

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 17, 2022


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeanie K. Vaudt, Judge.

Leann Faye Werts challenges the Iowa Board of Parole's denying her conditional release based only on the seriousness of her offenses.

Gordon E. Allen, Johnston, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and John R. Lundquist, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

Heard by Bower, C.J., Badding, J., and Potterfield, S.J. [*]

1

BOWER, CHIEF JUDGE.

Leann Faye Werts challenges the Iowa Board of Parole's (Board) denial of her conditional release based only on the seriousness of her twenty-year-old offenses. She contends the Board's reason is contrary to the statutory mandate that release "shall be ordered" when "there is reasonable probability that the person .... is able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen." Iowa Code § 906.4 (2021). She maintains the Board's denial here was contrary to law, "and given the factual record, simply irrational and illogical."

The Board's decision denying Werts conditional release was within its discretion as provided in section 906.4. We affirm the district court's finding the Board did not prejudice Werts's substantial rights in denying release.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Werts was originally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder for the death of a twenty-one-month-old child who was in her care. Her conviction was overturned on appeal, and a new trial ordered. See State v. Werts, 677 N.W.2d 734, 735 (Iowa 2004).

In April 2005, Werts voluntarily entered an Alford plea[1] and was adjudged guilty of "multiple acts of child endangerment," in violation of Iowa Code section 726.6A (maximum term of fifty years), and attempted murder, in violation of Iowa Code section 707.11 (maximum twenty-five-year term with a mandatory minimum).

2

To support her pleas, Werts stipulated she twice intentionally struck the child's head against a highchair with unreasonable force and her actions resulted in a serious brain injury to her victim that caused a substantial risk of death. In addition, Werts stipulated that on another date she intentionally pulled the child off the ground by his arm and slammed him to the ground on his buttocks.

The sentencing court determined the fifty-year and twenty-five-year prison terms would run consecutively due to "the nature of the offenses and because to do otherwise would unduly lessen the seriousness of the offenses." Thus, Werts received a seventy-five-year sentence and was not eligible for parole until she had served at least seven-tenths of her attempted-murder sentence. Werts's mandatory-minimum term was completed in March 2020; her tentative discharge date is in September 2046. In anticipation of Werts completing the mandatory portion of her sentence, the Board began annual reviews of her case starting in April 2019.

Werts sought judicial review of the Board's April 21, 2021 and September 9, 2021 final appeal decisions denying her a conditional release. Werts alleges the Board applied an erroneous legal standard or otherwise acted unreasonably or arbitrarily in denying her release based solely upon the seriousness of her criminal offense.

In its judicial review decision, the district court concluded:

Iowa's parole statute requires that [Werts] cannot be released on parole until [the Board] determines-in its sole opinion-that she is able [and] willing to fulfill her obligations as a law-abiding citizen. Iowa Code § 906.4(1). Ultimately, "[t]he parole decision is the exclusive prerogative of the board of parole." State v. Shield, 368 N.W.2d 721, 724 (Iowa 1985). Under Iowa's indeterminate sentencing scheme, the "ultimate determination of the length of sentence [Werts] will actually serve within the maximum rests with
3
the [Board]," not the [department of corrections] or the district court. [State v.] Remmers, 259 N.W.2d [779,] 783-84 [(Iowa 1977)].
Second, [the Board] could rationally and justifiably find that a person who commits serious crimes such as those committed by [Werts] here must demonstrate that any exhibited rehabilitation is genuine and persists over a longer period of time before it concludes a reasonable probability exists that that perpetrator is willing and able to abide by the law, and therefore the best interests of the public will indeed be served through giving the perpetrator a parole release.
Werts appeals.

II. Scope and Standard of Review.

The Board's action qualifies as "other agency action" and not a contested case. Iowa Code § 906.3 ("The grant or denial of parole or work release is not a contested case as defined in section 17A.2."); Sindlinger v. Iowa State Bd. of Regents, 503 N.W.2d 387, 389 n.1 (Iowa 1993) (explaining what qualifies as a contested case hearing). Thus, the question is whether the Board "committed an error of law or acted unreasonably, capriciously, or arbitrarily." Greenwood Manor v. Iowa Dep't of Pub. Health, 641 N.W.2d 823, 831 (Iowa 2002). "In exercising its judicial review power, the district court acts in an appellate capacity." Hill v. Fleetguard, Inc., 705 N.W.2d 665, 669 (Iowa 2005). "We will apply the standards of section 17A.19(10) to determine if we reach the same result as the district court." Ghost Player, LLC v. Iowa Dep't of Econ. Dev., 906 N.W.2d 454, 462 (Iowa 2018).

III. Discussion.

The parties emphasize different phrases in the relevant statutory provision:

A parole or work release shall be ordered only for the best interest of society and the offender, not as an award of clemency. The board shall release on parole or work release any person whom it has the power to so release, when in its opinion there is reasonable probability that the person can be released without detriment to the community or to the person. A person's release is not a detriment to the community or the person if the person is able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen, in the board's determination.
4

Iowa Code § 906.4(1).

Werts notes the mandatory nature of the language-parole "shall be ordered" and the board "shall release" "when . . . there is a reasonable probability that the person . . . is able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law abiding citizen." Id.; see Iowa Code § 4.1(30)(a) ("The word 'shall' imposes a duty.").[2] She emphasizes the Board was in receipt of sixty letters of support from friends, family, and her religious community; recommendations indicating Werts had offers of transportation and employment; and confirmation she had housing and family support upon release. Her history while in prison shows she had completed all available and recommended programming; has been consistently employed and is currently in a position of trust as a peer educator; had only one minor disciplinary matter almost two decades ago; and was being recommended for work release by the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women (ICIW) administrators, the warden, correctional officers, counselors, and staff. Werts asserts these letters and recommendations show she is "able and willing to fulfill the obligations of...

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