A Valley Springs teen convicted of stabbing his younger sister to death in a June 2018 retrial was sentenced to a juvenile detention facility until at least until the age of 23, but a change in California law could keep him there until he is 25.
Isiah Fowler, 17, was sentenced to serve 16 years to life on July 24 by Calaveras County Judge Susan C. Harlan for the second-degree murder of his younger sister, Leila Fowler, who was 8 years old when she was stabbed 22 times on April 27, 2013.
Fowler received the same 16 years to life sentence following an October 2015 conviction by Judge Thomas Smith in his first trial. But an amendment to the California Welfare and Institutions Code — which went into effect on July 1 and increased the age juvenile offenders can be held from age 23 to age 25 — has given the California Department of Juvenile Justice the responsibility of deciding Fowler’s total prison sentence.
“We didn’t really feel like this was a sentencing issue,” Harlan said Thursday afternoon at the Calaveras County Superior Court following a 10-minute conference with Fowler’s attorney Mark Reichel and Calaveras County Deputy District Attorney Dana Pfeil.
It will be “their determination as to when he is released,” Harlan said of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Fowler’s sentence and the subsequent confusion over its prescribed length was met with little surprise by his father, Barney Fowler, and his stepmother, Crystal Fowler.
“None of this is a shock to us,” Crystal Fowler said. “We’re pissed off about it.”
Both expressed frustration with the apparent futility of the appeal process for their son. Isiah Fowler’s first conviction was overturned in February by three appeals court judges, who found he was not adequately advised of his Miranda rights during four interviews with Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies and FBI officials.
But the retrial, instead of exonerating Isiah Fowler, may have only served to augment his eventual prison sentence, Barney Fowler said.
“He had his hopes to come home, but he knows it’s Calaveras County,” he said. “They will keep him until 30 if they feel like he isn’t rehabilitated. He will never be rehabilitated, because he will never admit to a crime he didn’t do.”
Isiah Fowler turns 18 on Aug. 22, Crystal Fowler said, and has served approximately 1,900 days in juvenile detention since his arrest on May 2013.
Isiah Fowler entered the courtroom wearing a blue polo shirt, his long hair tied into a ponytail. Followed close behind by a probation officer, he sat to the right of defense investigator John Kennedy before shaking Reichel’s hand.
Reichel said he plans to appeal the retrial ruling to the state appeals court on the grounds that insufficient evidence was presented and that the court did not allow polygraph tests into evidence, which purportedly confirmed Isiah Fowler’s claims that he did not murder his sister.
“A full examination in search of the truth did not happen,” Reichel said.
Reichel said he planned to appeal the ruling within six months to the California appeals court and noted his intention to file a writ of habeas corpus either in Calaveras County or at the state level to force Isiah Fowler’s release at the age of 23.
Richel acknowledged that the legal precedent for the challenge was uncharted, because Isiah Fowler would be the “first case that will be subject” to the amendment to the California Welfare and Institutions Code.
The modification to California law went into effect on July 1, between Isiah Fowler’s conviction on June 27, and his sentencing on July 24.
“This kid is innocent. It’s just furthering the nightmare,” Reichel said.
Pfiel said the change in California law was “independent of the DA’s Office” and she did not advocate for a sentence of either 23 years old or 25 years old.
Pfeil added that the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office would be prepared to defend the conviction should another challenge be brought before the court.
“Anticipating? No. Could that happen? Sure,” she said. “We are very pleased with the judge’s decision with her sentence and we are are very happy that we were able to get a measure of justice for Leila.”
Barney Fowler, Crystal Fowler and Reichel have staunchly maintained Isiah Fowler’s innocence, asserting that the retrial process did not allow him the opportunity to reevaluate the case.
“As long as you have local judges and local politics, he will never get a fair trial,” Barney Fowler said.
During the three-day trial Reichel argued that the murder was a physical impossibility for Isiah Fowler to reach over a bunk bed and stab Leila, who had been braced against the wall during the murder. Reichel also argued that Isiah Fowler did not have blood stains on his body and clothes and would have to be a “criminal mastermind” at age 12 to clean the scene.
The prosecution also never provided a motive for the killing, he said, but the District Attorney’s Office stipulated that proving motive was not a necessary component when other details showed guilt.
Pfeil said during the trial that Isiah Fowler stabbed his sister to death with a serrated kitchen knife and sought to elude authorities with a story about a 6-foot-tall Mexican intruder with shoulder-length gray hair who killed his sister and threatened him as he hid in a bathroom.
Reichel said during the trial that unidentified male DNA found in Leila’s hair and in her underpants suggested she could have been attacked or molested by the unknown intruder.
“This kid will be exonerated someday,” he said. “They’ll find the murderer. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.”
He also said a serrated kitchen knife was also not the murder weapon because the “ugly and jagged” tip was not consistent with the wounds on Leila. The wounds were of varying depth in the arms and chest and three stab wounds to her lungs and heart were identified as the cause of death.
Pfeil argued during the trial that Leila Fowler’s blood was found on the interior of a clean knife found on top of a clean white towel in the kitchen during the investigation. A Ghostbusters T-shirt that belonged to Isiah and was stained with Leila’s blood was found stuffed in a hamper in his room.
Isiah Fowler has been held at the California Youth Authority facility in Stockton since his previous conviction and was held at the El Dorado juvenile facility for the duration of his new trial.
No matter where he ends up, or how long he is in prison, Barney and Crystal Fowler said they will continue to visit or talk to him every week.
“We’re at the end of this, and we still have no answers,” Crystal Fowler said. “We haven’t even gotten to the grieving process.”