Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
A 36-year-old man who’s been in New Mexico prison since he was 16 for a series of rapes he committed when he was 14 and 15 is hoping the state’s Supreme Court will grant his petition for release, arguing his 91-year sentence is cruel and unusual punishment.
The court heard oral arguments Monday morning in the case that is drawing great interest in the state.
Joel Ira, who was sentenced in 1997, is serving the longest non-homicide juvenile sentence in the state’s history. It is longer than most sentences that have been given to adults who have raped children, and longer than most sentences that have been given to adults who have killed people, for which the mandatory minimum sentence in the state is 30 years.
Ira, then living in Otero County, pleaded guilty when he was 16 to 10 counts of criminal sexual penetration. The girl was 8 or 9 at the time, and he was 14 and 15.
Both prosecutors and Ira’s defense attorneys agree the girl suffered from bipolar disorder and that she had already survived other sexual abuse.
But the sex acts are characterized differently by defense lawyers and the prosecution.
Throughout the case, Ira’s various defense attorneys focus on parts of the police reports that show the girl first reported that some of the activities were playful and possibly even initiated by her.
Prosecutors focus on the violence, including that the rapes were painful to the girl and that Ira threatened her if she told anyone.
At the time of his trial, a handful of psychologists and analysts provided the court with varying reviews of the boy’s amenability to treatment, with most saying he was beyond help and a certain menace to society, while others agreed he would be helped with treatment – if the state had suitable treatment.
But it didn’t.
His defense attorney at the time suggested Ira accept a plea deal, predicting that he’d probably be sent to the state’s juvenile prison for treatment until age 21, according to his current defense attorney Gary Mitchell.
Instead, after Ira accepted the deal and pleaded guilty, state District Judge Jerry Ritter in Alamogordo sentenced him to 108 years in adult prison, later reduced to 91½ years.
The judge said he felt the need to make sure that even with good time credit Ira stayed in prison until he was an old man and physically less likely to harm others.
An appeal was started immediately, but it failed when the state Court of Appeals ruled in 2002 that Ritter’s sentence should be upheld.
“(Ira) repeatedly raped his (victim) over a two-year period, degrading and demeaning his young victim with a shocking number of humiliating and painful acts. … Although Defendant’s sentence is very long, the district court went to great lengths to explain that the sentence was intended as a means for protecting the public from Defendant in the face of a considerable amount of testimony demonstrating that Defendant was not amendable to current treatment methods and, as a result, would remain a threat to society,” the Appeals Court judges ruled.
Some of the judges were reluctant in agreeing to this, citing the state law’s lack of an option for judges to check in on or re-evaluate juveniles who have been sentenced as adults to see if they have been rehabilitated.
In 2015, Mitchell attempted another type of appeal in which he sought to bring Ira to Ritter’s court to show that he had been rehabilitated. Ritter denied release.
Mitchell is trying again now before the Supreme Court, hoping that justices will release Ira from prison.
Many of the oral arguments on Monday focused on a federal Supreme Court case referred to as Graham, for Graham v. Florida.
That is a 2003 Florida case in which a 16-year-old was sentenced to a year in jail and then put on parole for robbing a store with some friends. While on parole, he committed another felony and was sentenced for that parole violation at age 19 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court found Graham’s sentence to be unconstitutional because, justices said in the opinion, juveniles must always have “meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” such as parole.
Mitchell on Monday said that the Graham case is an easy framework for showing that Ira’s sentence is unconstitutional because he won’t have the option to appear before a parole board until he is 62 years old – or 45 years into his sentence.
If he lives that long, Mitchell said.
“Had he murdered his victim … he would be eligible for parole after 35 years. It’s basically a life sentence,” Mitchell said. “You can’t sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole. They have to be given hope.”
State prosecutors with Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office, though, say that the sentence is not unconstitutional because judges have discretion for sentencing based on factors in each case, and in this case Ira is an exceptionally dangerous person who shouldn’t be treated as an average juvenile under Graham.
State prosecutor Laurie Blevins, based in Albuquerque, said Ira committed a series of crimes and so his case is not the same as the one for Graham, who she said committed a single crime and not a series as Ira did.
State Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels said during arguments that Blevins was misreading the Graham case, which he said is more about the status of the offender and not the status of the crimes.
Blevins declined comment after the arguments, which were packed with observers, many of whom commented that the case is an important legal moment in the state’s history.
The court took the case under consideration, which means it will release its opinion at a later date.
The national Juvenile Law Center out of Philadelphia filed a document in the case, called an amicus brief, on behalf of Ira, focusing on recent research that shows juvenile brains aren’t developed enough to hold them accountable to the same degree as an adult.