Life in prison for criminal teens? Supreme Court to decide.

Two Florida teens were given life sentences without parole for nonlethal crimes. The top court will consider if the punishments are constitutional.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US Supreme Court announced Monday that it would take up two cases involving juvenile offenders in Florida who claim their life prison sentences for rape and robbery are cruel and unusual punishment.

One of the defendants was 13 at the time he allegedly raped a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola. The other was 17 when he was charged with participating in a series of robberies.

At issue in these cases is whether the fundamental principles supporting a 2005 Supreme Court decision that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should also be applied to life imprisonment sentences meted out to juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes.

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The two cases, Joe Harris Sullivan v. Florida and Terrance Jamar Graham v. Florida, will be heard during the court's 2009-2010 term, which begins in October.

The cases are potential landmarks if the high court decides to use them to extend Eighth Amendment protections beyond the area of capital punishment to juvenile offenders who have been convicted and punished as adults.

"This court has recognized that the Eighth Amendment requires the states to treat juveniles differently than adults, at least in the context of the death penalty," Jacksonville lawyer John Mills said in his brief to the court in the Graham case. "This is so because, given the difference between juveniles and adults, juveniles have a greater claim to be forgiven for their criminal misbehavior."

Mr. Mills' client, Mr. Graham, was 17 when he allegedly violated his probation on an attempted armed robbery charge by taking part in a series of robberies, including an armed home invasion. The trial judge concluded that Graham had decided on a life of crime and sentenced him to life in prison.

In Mr. Sullivan's case he was 13 when he burglarized an elderly woman's home with two older teens. She wasn't home at the time. But someone returned to her house later that day and beat and raped her.

The two older teens admitted to the earlier burglary but said Sullivan committed the rape. He was convicted in a one-day trial in which the victim testified that she'd been blindfolded during the assault but that she could recognize her attacker's voice.

During questioning outside the presence of the jury, Sullivan was required to repeat certain words used by the attacker. The victim was then asked if she recognized Sullivan's voice.

Prosecutor: "You are saying the person who just spoke to you is the person who said that to you that day?"

Victim: "It sounds like the voice."

Prosecutor: "Alright."

Victim: "It's been six months. It's hard, but it does sound similar. But it's said in a different way. See, the tone – it was said to me very belligerent in a loud voice."

Police collected biological evidence at the crime scene but it was destroyed before it could be subjected to DNA testing, according to a brief filed by Sullivan's lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.

"Joe's claim is truly and extremely unusual, and becoming more so every year," Mr. Stevenson wrote in his brief. "Only two thirteen-year-olds currently are sentenced to die in prison for non-homicides in the United States, and Joe is one of only eight thirteen-year-olds sentenced to die in prison for any crime."

By "die in prison," the lawyer is not referring to an execution. Rather he means a sentence of life without parole will result in his client eventually dying in prison.

"Condemning a thirteen-year-old child to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for a non-homicide is precisely the kind of exceptionally rare and extreme sentence that requires review by this court to assess whether the Eighth Amendment's cruel-and-unusual prohibition applies," Stevenson wrote.

Edward Hill of the Florida Attorney General's Office urged the Supreme Court to reject Sullivan's appeal. He said there was no compelling reason for the Supreme Court to hear the case, and that the appeal should have been filed much earlier.

"Given the procedural posture of this case, [Sullivan's] request is extraordinary," Mr. Hill wrote. "What Sullivan is asking this court to do is to treat his petition as if this court was conducting a direct review of his conviction. However, this is not a direct review case."

Florida's brief says that one of the first police officers at the scene of the rape identified Sullivan as the person she saw running from the victim's house. Sullivan received the life sentence under state sentencing guidelines that took account of earlier crimes.

The state's brief says Sullivan's "score" under these guidelines was 846 points – far beyond the 583 points needed to impose a life sentence under Florida law.

The crime at issue was committed 20 years ago. Sullivan is now 33.

"Florida courts did not conduct an appropriate analysis of this Eighth Amendment claim, because the trial court incorrectly concluded that Joe Sullivan had not even stated a 'constitutional claim,' " Stevenson wrote.

In addition to Florida, five other states have prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13, according to Stevenson's brief. All six cases involved homicides. The five states are Illinois, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

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