IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The parole board, not a judge, must decide whether to release a woman who has been rehabilitated in prison after killing a man in 1987 when she was a teenager, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Even as it praised her remarkable turnaround, the court overturned a judge's order that would have let Yvette Louisell immediately out of the women's prison in Mitchellville. Now her fate rests with the Iowa Board of Parole, which has refused to release other inmates who were juveniles when they committed killings despite pressure from courts to consider doing so.
The ruling disappointed Louisell's supporters and sentencing reform advocates, who argue she's exactly the type of reformed offender who should no longer be behind bars.
Now 44, Louisell was a bright but troubled 17-year-old Iowa State University student when she stabbed 40-year-old Keith Stilwell to death in his home in Ames.
The two met at an art institute, where Louisell had taken a job as a nude model to earn money. Stilwell, an art student at the institute, hired Louisell to model at his home for a higher wage. During one session, she contended that Stilwell cornered her with a knife and said he was going to rape her. She claimed that she was able to get the knife and stab him in self-defense.
But jurors rejected Louisell's self-defense justification — Stilwell was physically disabled and she was caught using his stolen credit card. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
She got a shot at freedom in recent years after state and federal courts ruled that juveniles cannot be automatically sentenced to life behind bars. In a separate but related case Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court said judges can only give life sentences to juvenile killers who are "irreparably corrupt, beyond rehabilitation, and thus unfit ever to re-enter society." Otherwise, they should make them eligible to one day earn parole.
About three dozen Iowa inmates convicted of first-degree murder as teenagers have been getting new sentencing hearings and seeking release. But the parole board has taken a tough approach, so far only conditionally releasing one of them, Kristina Fetters, to hospice care as she was dying of cancer in 2013.
At a resentencing hearing for Louisell last year, Judge James Ellefson changed her life sentence without parole to a 25-year term and gave her credit for time served. The ruling would have led to her immediate release, but the high court put it on hold after prosecutors appealed. The Iowa attorney general's office argued Ellefson didn't have the legal authority to change a life sentence to a fixed term and only could make her eligible for parole.
Writing Friday's opinion, Justice Daryl Hecht lauded Louisell for moving beyond a chaotic upbringing and troubled teenage years during her 27-year prison term, noting she earned a college degree with honors, became a published author and mentored other inmates. He noted the county attorney who prosecuted her and the judge who oversaw her trial supported her release.
"By all accounts, Louisell is a model inmate who has achieved rehabilitation; grown from a naive and impulsive youngster to a mature, accomplished, and intelligent woman; and accepted full responsibility for the crime she committed as a juvenile in 1987," Hecht wrote.
But he agreed Ellefson didn't have the power to impose a 25-year sentence and order her release. Instead, the parole board must consider whether to free Louisell, who is eligible for consideration immediately.
Louisell's attorneys argued in court that the board won't likely grant release given its track record of denying requests from other ex-juvenile offenders. Hecht noted that juveniles convicted of crimes must be afforded a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release" based on rehabilitation, but said that it wasn't ripe for the court to decide whether that's been denied to Louisell.
Jean Basinger, an advocate for inmates who has known Louisell during her time in prison, said she hopes the board will quickly interview Louisell.
"I think she has a lot of skills and she's definitely remorseful. I don't think she's a risk," Basinger said. "I don't really see the point of keeping her in any longer."