TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court Hears High-Profile Cases on Juvenile Sentencing

BY Online DA  November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST

Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.; file photo

Four years ago, a divided court abolished the death penalty for minors who commit murder, arguing that “death is different” from other penalties because of its permanency.

Monday’s cases involve two minors in Florida who were sentenced to life in prison following crimes in which no one was killed. Joe Harris Sullivan of Pensacola, Fla., was 13 at the time of sentencing, and Terrance Jamar Graham, of Jacksonville, Fla., was 19 when sentenced, though his crimes were committed when he was 17 years old.

Attorneys for the two men allege that sentencing a minor to life in prison without the chance of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because young people are too immature and impetuous to understand the consequences of their crimes.

Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer representing Sullivan, argues that if the law deems 13-year-olds too young to drive, drink, or vote, they should not be sentenced to life in prison.

“They’re just two different types of death sentences,” he told National Public Radio. “One is death by execution, the other is death by incarceration.”

Counsel for the state of Florida retorted that sentencing should be a matter left to the states.

In 1989, Sullivan broke into the home of a 72-year-old woman to steal her money and jewelry. Sullivan returned later that day and raped the elderly woman, who was not home at the time of the robbery.

Mentally impaired since childhood, Sullivan was convicted based on the victim’s testimony that the voice she heard during the rape was “similar” to the one replicated by the defendant in court. The victim’s head and eyes had been covered during the assault, and Sullivan helped police replicate the tone of voice the victim recalled hearing.

Sullivan’s guilt or innocence is not the legal challenge at stake however — rather it is the sentence he received and his chances for parole.

During sentencing, prosecutors listed 17 other minor offenses from Sullivan’s record and noted that the youth had spent time in juvenile detention facilities. The judge ruled that because of the teenager’s past and the gravity of the sexual assault, he should be treated as an adult under Florida law. He was convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the second case, then 16-year-old Graham attempted to rob a barbecue restaurant in July 2003 with two friends. When the manager refused to hand over the cash, one of the teenagers struck him with a steel bar. Graham fled the scene and two months later, his father reported to the police that he suspected his son of engaging in other burglaries, according to SCOTUSblog.

Graham was arrested and charged as an adult with one count of burglary and battery and one attempted armed robbery. Pleading guilty to both charges, Graham was given three years on probation plus nine months in the county jail.

Just six months after his release, Graham was arrested again for robbery and evading police. The judge revoked his probation and rejected the four-year sentence suggested by the Department of Corrections. At the age of 19, he was sentenced to life in prison.

“I don’t understand why you would be given such a great opportunity to do something with your life and why you would throw it away,” said the judge. “We can’t help you any further.”

While the Supreme Court has established clear guidelines for capital punishment sentencing, there remains no specific criteria for issuing long prison sentences other than stating that a life sentence may be struck down if it is “grossly disproportionate” to the crime, reported SCOTUSblog.

Traditionally, the high court weighs the severity of the crime with the harshness of the penalty and compares it with similar cases.

After years of failed appeals, Graham’s lawyers took his case to the Supreme Court in November 2008, and in December, Sullivan’s lawyers followed suit. The justices examined the two cases separately, but granted an appeal for both young men to be heard in May 2009.

In their six-page petition, Graham’s lawyers argued that imposing a life sentence to juveniles who committed crimes not involving murder violated the Eighth Amendment and constituted cruel and unusual punishment because young people cannot be held to the same standards as adults. They cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in a 2005 ruling that abolished capital punishment for minors, in which Kennedy wrote that the death penalty could not be applied to minors because teens are prone to “impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions” and “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.”

Sullivan’s counsel cited demographics in the severity of the sentence, arguing that “in the vast majority of states, no one Joe’s age has received a life-without-parole sentence,” according to the SCOTUSblog. Sullivan had been “sentenced to die in prison for sexual battery” in a state that leads the nation in imprisoning juveniles for non-homicide crimes, they wrote.

Florida imposed harsh sentencing on minors in the 1990s to tackle a massive juvenile crime wave. Today, state officials insist that the state is safer than ever, in part because of strict enforcement.

“Sometimes a 15-year-old has a tremendous appreciation for right and wrong,” said Florida Rep. William D. Snyder in a statement. “I think it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to say that it was patently illegal or improper to send a youthful offender to life without parole. At a certain point, juveniles cross the line, and they have to be treated as adults and punished as adults.”