The Supremes

The Supremes

The sentencing took place in a Pensacola courtroom, after a trial that lasted a single day. Judge Nicholas Geeker, presiding over the case, believed the defendant before him was irredeemable. Said Geeker of Joe Harris Sullivan: “I’m going to try to send him away for as long as I can.” Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It was 1989 and Sullivan was 13 years old. Now, 20 years after that sentence was handed down, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether Sullivan’s prison term violates the Constitution’s provisions prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The case has drawn notice and support from luminaries like former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, and others who have described their own youthful crimes. It is also viewed as a natural outgrowth of the court’s divided 2005 ruling that juveniles cannot be executed for murder. The challenges to sentences of life without parole for teenagers are based in part on the words of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose majority opinion in that ruling said, “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. . . . It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Sullivan, 33, is represented by the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. His attorney, Bryan Stephenson, says his client’s sentence isn’t any different from the punishment the justices ruled unconstitutional: “One is death by execution, and the other is death by incarceration, but they are both terminal sentences.” Only two 13-year-olds in the country have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes that were not homicides, and both are imprisoned in Florida. In their brief to the Supreme Court, Florida officials argued that states are within their rights to incarcerate forever those individuals who are believed to pose a perpetual threat. Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar wrote: “There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery.” Nationally, 111 people are serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles that didn’t result in a death; 77 are locked up in Florida, for crimes that include carjacking and armed robbery. Florida’s brief to the Supreme Court states that in the 1990s, the state took a get-tough approach in response to a crime wave that was “compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry.” The brief was filed in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham; it is a second petition accepted by the justices. Graham, from Jacksonville, was part of a group that robbed a restaurant when he was 16 years old; a year later, while serving probation, he was involved in an armed burglary. He was given a life sentence after a judge cast doubts on Graham’s ability to reform. In agreeing to accept the cases, and deciding to hear them separately, the justices are giving themselves a range of issues to consider. For example, the justices might rule that life sentences are acceptable in the case of 17-year-olds, but not for 13-year-olds. They may consider the seriousness of the offenses, or choose to differentiate non-homicides with crimes involving murder. Sullivan had a history of troubles with the law. He had 17 offenses on his sheet before the crime under consideration. He and two friends robbed the home of a 72-year-old woman in 1989, returning to the scene later. The woman was raped by one of the youths; she never saw his face, and only identified him as a “dark, colored boy.” But the victim remembered that he told her, “If you can’t identify me, I may not have to kill you.” At the trial, Sullivan was made to repeat the words. The woman listened to Sullivan, and said: “It’s been six months. It’s hard, but it does sound similar.” The other boys involved in the crime singled out Sullivan as the rapist. In the case before the Supremes, Sullivan’s attorney is seeking to have his client re-sentenced so that he could become eligible for release. The attorney, Stevenson, contends that Sullivan and others were caught up in a political response to rising crime: “What happened is we lowered the minimum age for trying kids as adults and brought them into the adult system, and we expanded the range of very harsh sentences for an adult, and these two things have collided.” But the state and its allies say that’s merely evidence that sentences are carefully applied to the worst offenders. A brief filed by Louisiana and 18 other states says: “It is a rare and agonizing decision to sentence a juvenile to life-without-parole. But rare does not mean unconstitutional. Rather, rarity is an index of mercy – of reluctance to take this severe step.” The National District Attorneys Association, which supports Florida’s position, says that although life without parole for juveniles may be unusual, “permanent incarceration for the most violent, hardened juvenile offenders is by no means ‘cruel.’” A wide range of groups support Sullivan and Graham, including the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, as well as others who argue that youths can’t be held responsible in the same manner as adults. They argue that this is the same reason that juveniles aren’t entrusted with important matters like drinking, marrying, or voting. Graham and Sullivan have also gotten support in the form of a friend-of-the-court brief filed by former juvenile offenders like the actor and director Charles Dutton and the former senator, Simpson, who as a youth burned down an abandoned federal building, destroyed property, and assaulted a police officer. Said Simpson of youths with long histories in the criminal justice system: “Maybe 90% of them you throw back in, but what about the other 10%?”