Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

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.

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

Skip to next paragraph

"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.