Sunday, November 15, 2009

SCOTUS Docket Watch – Juvenile Life Sentences

     Welcome Docket Watch, a new feature that will highlight important Supreme Court Cases.  Today’s entry follows the sister cases of Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida that both deal with whether minors should receive life sentences without parole for crimes other than homicide. 

    The issue is cloudy, messy and can be legally clumsy to answer.  In 2005, the Court ruled 5-4 in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to issue the death penalty on minors (under 18 years of age) based on the 8th Amendment’s protection against “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.”  Both Graham and Sullivan seek to extend this protection to non-homicide cases.

    Now, before you form an opinion, I will give you the facts of each case.  DISCLAIMER: Facts are disturbing, but necessary to assess the validity of each conviction.

    Graham v. Florida – In 2003, Graham & 2 other teens robbed a Barbeque, attacking the manager with a steel bar.  Graham’s father suspected his involvement and reported the teens to the police.  Graham was arrested and charged as an adult on a First Degree Felony count of burglary with assault/battery, which is punishable up to a maximum sentence of life.  He also received a 2nd degree felony charge of attempted armed robbery.

Graham plead guilty and received 3 years probation with a 9 month prison term.

6 months later while on probation, at 17 years old, Graham was arrested on a felony home-invasion charge to which he admitted guilt.  The lower Ct. refused to grant leniency, and sentenced him to life without parole.  The case was upheld by at the appellate level and the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear the case.  Defendants appealed to the Supreme Court and argued on November 9th, 2009.

    Sullivan v. Florida – In 1989, Sullivan was 13 years old.  He and   2 other youths robbed an empty home of jewelry and money.  Later on they returned, but this time a 72 year old woman was inside.  The attackers placed a bag over head, and then one of the youths raped her and “sexually assaulted her both vaginally and orally”  to the point where she would require surgery to repair her body.  

At trial, the elderly woman identified Sullivan by voice only, as she never saw her attacker.  One of the other youths also told police that Sullivan was the attacker. 

Sullivan had 17 prior crimes, which convinced the court to try him as an adult, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

What do you think?  The cases were argued on November 9th, and The Court is expected soon.  Do you think that the law should prohibit life terms because “juveniles are still developing and are not fully culpable for their actions” as Justice Ginsburg claims?  Or do you feel that the 8th amendment does not create any real distinction for age?  Discuss!


  1. Great feature! These are going to be fun (though maybe that's not quite the right word) to discuss.

    As for Graham/Sullivan, it should be a moot point: our parole system should be good enough to reliably pull out prisoners who are truly ready to live a crime-free life. We shouldn't need "life without the possibility of parole" category at all. Of course, that would require a prison system that has a greater than 5% chance of actually rehabilitating people, and greater faith in the ability of true psychopaths to get better. Still, it's a little sick to base a legal decision on the difficulty of rehabilitation.

    Ultimately I agree with Ginsberg, though I don't think her line of reasoning is the strongest.

    The notion of forcing someone to live in jail from the age of 13 until his death certainly strikes me as a contender for "cruel and unusual:" with the ages we're talking about it means an entire life in jail, not just the remainder of one.

    This horror of an entirely imprisoned life sets up the case for Graham and Sullivan's potential parole. What finishes it in my mind is the shifting nature of adolescent personality and understanding. How many grown-ups act the same way they did when they were 13 years old, particularly when it comes to issues of self-control and empathy? Aside from a few psychopaths, not very many. In fact, I would argue for an age cutoff that's closer to than 18.

    Though freeing people in their 30s with no adult experience of the outside world is a pretty scary thought, if they're really that fucked up then a psychiatric hospital, not a prison, is the place for them.

    That said:

    A friend of mine does work with former child soldiers, nearly all of whom are suffering from a particularly complex form of PTSD. In most cases, they were kidnapped at a young age, severely abused, taught to revere their captors as all but gods, fed drugs and women and guns, and only then turned loose in war where they commit some of the most horrible atrocities on the planet.

    Despite the horror those children wreak, it would be hard to argue that they are fully culpable for their actions. Graham and Sullivan, at least from my limited knowledge, cannot rely on such a defense, at least not to that extent. Whatever their histories were like, they did what they did for themselves. And youth does not simply erase that culpability.

  2. (The last sentence of paragraph 5 should read "In fact, I would argue for an age cutoff that's closer to 25 than 18.")

  3. so in the courts view assault and battery is the same level of offense as rape? Maybe its just me but I feel like Sullivan's offense was far worse than Graham's. Sullivan's offense takes it to a level beyond criminal that is very perverse in my mind, although I was not the man getting beaten by a crowbar. Their ages aside I would think these offenses would have different sentences.

  4. @Nimsofa, just to clarify, the charge of Burglary with assault/battery is one charge separate from either burglary or assault/battery that is punishable up to life in Florida. Like the case here, that sentence is rarely given. Graham was given the life term for breaking parole with another felony home invasion charge while on probation, which according to the Florida penal code can mandate a life term w/out parole.

    But your point is valid; especially when you look at the Supreme Court's reasoning in Coker v. Georgia banning the Death Penalty for rape on an adult woman. Here the court laid out an objective proportionality construct through the 8th amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause. Justice's also pushed for Retributive and deterrance arguments, much like Scalia and Alito in Graham/Sullivan.

    We gave this case to a high school group that I mentor as their project for the semester. Many of the same arguments are the same; some innate need to differnetiate between the specific crimes in each case. As soon as you bring up "Raping a 72 year old woman", the arguments change.

    From Robert's recent statements, it seems like the court will strike some compromise (thus avoiding the central issue as they tend to do...) and push for a decision that will "take age into consideration".

    What do you think of the time gap for Sullivan? He was sentenced nearly 20 years ago, and has now spent the majority of his life in prison.