Is Life Without Parole Sentence for 13 Year Old Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Maryland Criminal Attorney – Does a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 13 year old constitute cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violate the 8th Amendment to the Constitution? That is exactly the question that the United State’s Supreme Court may consider in a 20 year old case from Florida. There was an article about this case in the New York Times today explaining the basic facts as well as the possibility that the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Although the facts of the case are not technically relevant to the 8th Amendment issue, I think they are worth a brief description. The Defendant in the case, Joe Sullivan, was one of three boys who admitted to burglarizing a 72 year old Florida Woman’s home in 1989. Several hours after the burglary, someone entered the home and raped the 72 year old owner. At trial the woman could not identify him but after the court made the defendant repeat something that the rapist had sad to her she testified that “it’s been six months. It’s hard but it [ his voice] sounds similar”. One of his co-defendants also testified against him but it is not clear from the Times’ story what exactly he testified to since he did not claim to have been present during the rape. Additionally, Mr. Sullivan’s attorney did not give an opening statement in the one day trial and his closing argument apparently lasted only a few minutes. The attorney was later disbarred and is still ineligible to practice in Florida. Biological evidence was recovered but was apparently destroyed prior to the advent of DNA evidence. The judge sentenced Mr. Sullivan to life without the possibility of parole and he has now served 20 years of that sentence. The Florida Court of Appeals just rejected a request to review the case and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although he Supreme Court has not officially agreed to hear the case, it seems probable that they will do so for two reasons. First, the Court has requested that the State of Florida respond to Mr. Sullivan’s petitioner as they chose not to when it was filed. It also seems likely that they will accept it in light of the Court’s rulings in several recent cases involving juveniles including one in which the Court struck down a death sentence for a juvenile on 8th Amendment grounds.

This seems like an easy call to me. Mr. Sullivan is one of only a handful of defendants in the country, indeed the world, who is serving a life sentence without parole for a conviction for a crime that occurred while the defendant was just 13. He is one of only two 13 year old defendants currently serving a life sentence without parole for a crime that did not involve a death. Setting aside the weakness of the case against him and the disgraceful representation that he received from his trial attorney for a moment, sentences of life without parole are supposed to be reserved for the “worst of the worst” criminals. These sentences are supposed to be reserved for the incorrigible criminal who is so dangerous that rehabilitation is not seen as an option. To put a 13 year old boy in that category seems per se unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional to me, particularly for a crime not involving a death. Unfortunately for Mr. Sullivan, I sincerely doubt that Chief Justice Roberts or the other three members of the conservative block (Alito, Scalia and Thomas) will see it that way. For instance all four voted to uphold death sentences for juveniles in the recent case I referred to in this blog. It looks like this will be another 5-4 decision with Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote.

I will update the blog when/if the Court rules on this case.

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