Supreme Court To Hear Death in Prison for Teens Cases

(Bumped. And Sentencing Law and Policy has lots more links.)On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear two cases challenging laws imposing life sentences without parole on juveniles who are not convicted of murder.

The cases are both from Florida: The Equal Justice Initiative has an excellent synopsis of Florida v. Sullivan and Sullivan v. Graham in layman's terms.

Both cases ask the Court to address whether the differences between children and adults that led the Court to strike down the death penalty for children also make permanent imprisonment a constitutionally impermissible punishment for a child.


Joe Sullivan was 13 at the time of his crime. He is now 33 and in a wheelchair:

Joe Sullivan is one of only two thirteen-year-olds in the country sentenced to life without parole for an offense that did not involve a killing. In 1989, Joe was a mentally disabled thirteen-year-old child living in a home where he was regularly subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

The facts of the crime:

On the day of the crime, two older boys convinced Joe to participate in a burglary. The three boys entered an empty home and one older boy took some money and jewelry before the three left. That afternoon, the elderly homeowner was sexually assaulted in her home. She never saw her attacker.

One of the older boys, who may have been the true assailant, accused Joe of the sexual battery. Both older boys received short sentences in juvenile detention. Thirteen-year-old Joe Sullivan was charged and tried in adult court.

His trial:

Joe was tried by a six-person jury in a one-day proceeding; opening statements began sometime after 9 a.m., and the jury returned its verdict at 4:55 p.m. During trial, the prosecutor and witnesses made repeated, unnecessary reference to the fact that Joe is African American and the victim is white; one witness repeatedly said the perpetrator of the assault was a “colored boy” or “a dark colored boy.”

Biological evidence collected from the victim was not presented at trial and was destroyed before it could be subjected to DNA testing. Joe’s appointed lawyer — who was later disbarred — did not object to a "voice identification" of Joe by the victim (who was blindfolded during the assault) that she had first rehearsed with the prosecutor before repeating it for the jury. Joe was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

His appeal:

Even though Joe was the youngest person in the country sentenced to die in prison for a non-homicide, his lawyer filed a brief on appeal saying there were no issues to challenge in his case.

After being sentenced, at age 14, Joe was sent to an adult prison where he was brutalized and sexually victimized. He has MS and is confined to a wheelchair.

The Graham case is also troubling:

Terrance Graham was sixteen years old when he and a co-defendant tried to rob a store and the co-defendant hit the store manager with a pipe. Terrance was charged with armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. He had no prior criminal record and, in exchange for a guilty plea, was sentenced to three years probation.

At seventeen, Terrance was accused of committing a home invasion robbery with two 20-year-old men. He denied involvement in the crime but admitted that he had violated probation by missing his curfew. No jury trial was held; the trial judge found by a preponderance of the evidence (not beyond a reasonable doubt) that Terrance committed the home invasion robbery and violated his probation. The trial court sentenced Terrance to life in prison with no chance of parole for the original armed burglary charge. (my emphasis)

Check out Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison by the Equal Justice Initiative and the factsheet, Sentencing Children to Die in Prison.

Of the 73 children sentenced to die in prison nationwide, five were sentenced to die in prison for crimes at age 13 or 14 in which no one was killed. All of these kids are children of color. All of these sentences were imposed in the State of Florida.

Here are the summaries of the Petitioners' and Amicus Briefs in the cases.

There are 2,500 offenders serving life without parole in the U.S. for crimes committed as juveniles. 109 of them were convicted of non-homicide offenses. Of these 109, 77 are in Florida. The number of child offenders serving life w is zero.

Some more stats: The states incarcerating juvenile offenders for life for non-homicide crimes are: FL, LA, IA, CA, NE, SC. 100% of juveniles serving life without parole (death in prison sentences) are non-white.

How pathetic is this?

Nations opposing the 2006 UN General Assembly Resolution calling on all nations to
abolish juvenile LWOP: 1 (United States)

Nations that have not ratified Article 37 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, prohibiting juvenile LWOP sentences: 2 (United States and Somalia)

A life sentence is a sentence to die in prison. That we impose it on juveniles, some as young as 13 and 14, is unacceptable. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will agree.

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  • Display: Sort:
    it's spin (none / 0) (#1)
    by diogenes on Sat Nov 07, 2009 at 11:19:20 PM EST
    If the guilt is in dispute in Joe's case, then appeal the rape conviction.  As it stands, a teenager who rapes a 72 year old woman during a burglary has sufficient risk of being a psychopathically sadistic with risk of repeat crimes as to merit life in prison.
    In the other case, Terence violated his parole by committing a home invasion.  If you think that 70-90% preponderance is insufficient (did the judge say that he would not have convicted beyond a reasonable doubt), then appeal that.  It does not speak to the merits of a life sentence for teens who violate parole by committing home invasions.  The system already gave him parole once, after all.

    perhaps (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Sat Nov 07, 2009 at 11:59:55 PM EST
    you didn't read Joe was 13, mentally disabled, he denied being the one who raped the elderly woman, his lawyer didn't present his arguments on appeal.

    No 13 or 14 year old should get a life sentence in a case in which no death resulted. You are on the wrong site for your arguments, but you know that.

    Maybe you prefer Somalia, the only other country who refused to ratify Article 37 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, prohibiting juvenile LWOP sentences?


    if Joe was innocent... (none / 0) (#6)
    by diogenes on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 05:10:25 PM EST
    Hard cases make bad law.  You don't decide whether or not to have LWOP because one 13 year old denies having committed the crime for which he was charged.  Perhaps an innocence project could work for him or for the alleged parole violator.
    If you oppose LWOP for those under eighteen then cite cases of undisputed guilt with DNA evidence present and explain that nevertheless you would not put those teens on LWOP despite their crimes. Otherwise this is the reverse of the "paroled sex offender in Ohio murdered eleven women so end parole" type of argument.

    Also (none / 0) (#7)
    by diogenes on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 05:44:24 PM EST
    You don't learn facts or logical reasoning from only reading sites where everyone agrees with you all the time, my trust in the criminal defense system has been slowly lessening from reading this site, and I do work on cases for the defense as well as for the prosecution.

    Florida seems (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jen M on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 02:54:15 PM EST
    to hate children.

    People who kill children in 'boot camps' get away with it. Cops handcuff 5 year olds (4,in one case) They sentence children to adult prison. There is no excuse.

    hey, it could be worse, (none / 0) (#4)
    by cpinva on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 03:27:07 PM EST
    if it were texas, they'd have just executed them.

    oddly enough, i thought the standard, for a criminal case, was "beyond a reasonable doubt", not merely a "a preponderance of the evidence", did i miss some new amendment to the constitution?

    h (none / 0) (#9)
    by Watermark on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 08:09:35 PM EST
    He was on probation from the crime he committed as a 16-year old.  It was a probation hearing, not a real trial, and he permanently revoked all chance of parole for the original crime, even thought the boy was never convicted beyond a reasonable doubt for it.

    diogenes, i'm afraid, (none / 0) (#5)
    by cpinva on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 03:30:32 PM EST
    sometimes has his eyes blinded, by that lamp he carries, while searching for an honest man. :)

    Wait a minute (none / 0) (#8)
    by jbindc on Sun Nov 08, 2009 at 06:09:03 PM EST
    In the case of Terrence, does the judge need any more than a preponderance of evidence on a violation of probation charge?  By your own writing, Terrence was never convicted of the second attempted robbery - he was put in jail for the first crime for which he got a second chance.

    Maybe LWOP is a bit strong, but he doesn't deserve yet another slap on the wrist.

    The linked article says that Joe (none / 0) (#10)
    by MyLeftMind on Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 01:18:17 PM EST
    was a "mentally disabled" thirteen-year-old child, but it doesn't identify his disability. Mental disabilities aren't all related to intellect; kids are classified with disabilities even if they have behavior problems. If so, he deserved help with his behavior problems, but that's no excuse for committing rape. Given Joe's childhood experiences, his disability may reflect a permanent inability to function in society. If that is the case, lifelong confinement is very reasonable, and it's a shame he didn't get the help he needed before he committed rape, but it simply may be too late now. Of course, if he didn't do the crime at all, that's a whole `nother story.

    The article also says, "...the (Supreme) Court will address whether it is constitutional to sentence a child to permanent imprisonment for an offense committed during a temporary, and especially challenging, period in human development: adolescence."

    Adolescence certainly is challenging, and it's definitely harder when you've been abused yourself, but everyone makes their own choices, and those decisions have consequences. Plenty of people are sexually abused (estimates are 20-30% of American girls) and they don't respond by raping or killing other people. While the human brain is not fully developed until adulthood, personality and violent tendencies can be firmly established long before we're adults.

    No matter how young a violent offender was when the crime was committed, the public still deserves to be protected from a criminal's future violent acts. Perhaps a life sentence for a teen could be based on slightly different standards, but it doesn't make sense to automatically prevent courts from lifelong sentences just because an offense was committed as a teen. If Joe actually committed the crime, he could be a crazy rapist who will kill another fifty women if he ever gets released. Perhaps life in jail is extreme given that he "only" raped a woman, but our law enforcement and courts need functional tools.  Perhaps permanent lifelong restrictions with tracking would be more effective in a case like this.

    What's cruel and unusual is a system that imprisons the wrong person. When the system works properly and the right person is convicted, keeping them off the streets is absolutely reasonable.