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What Are Your Thoughts On This?

Posted by tothewire on February 3, 2009

A Life Term for Rape at 13: Cruel and Unusual?

Joe Sullivan at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City, Fla., in June 2007.

Joe Sullivan at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City, Fla., in June 2007.

WASHINGTON — In 1989, someone raped a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola, Fla. Joe Sullivan was 13 at the time, and he admitted that he and two older friends had burglarized the woman’s home earlier that day. But he denied that he had returned to commit the rape.

The victim testified that her assailant was “a colored boy” who “had kinky hair and he was quite black and he was small.” She said she “did not see him full in the face” and so would not recognize him by sight. But she recalled her attacker saying something like, “If you can’t identify me, I may not have to kill you.”

At his trial, Mr. Sullivan was made to say those words several times.

“It’s been six months,” the woman said on the witness stand. “It’s hard, but it does sound similar.”

The trial lasted a day and ended in conviction. Then Judge Nicholas Geeker, of the circuit court in Escambia County, sentenced Mr. Sullivan to life without the possibility of parole.

“I’m going to send him away for as long as I can,” Judge Geeker said.

Mr. Sullivan is 33 now, and his lawyers have asked the United States Supreme Court to consider the question of whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment extends to sentencing someone who was barely a teenager to die in prison for a crime that did not involve a killing.

People can argue about whether the punishment in Mr. Sullivan’s case is cruel. There is no question that it is unusual.

According to court papers and a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, which now represents Mr. Sullivan, there are only eight people in the world who are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed when they were 13. All are in the United States.

And there are only two people in that group whose crimes did not involve a killing. Both are in Florida, and both are black.

Joe Sullivan is one; Ian Manuel, who is in for a 1990 robbery and attempted murder, is the other.

About 1,000 people under 15 are arrested for rape every year, according to Justice Department statistics. But none of them have been sentenced to life without parole since Mr. Sullivan was. Indeed, no 13-year-old has been sentenced to life without parole for any crime that did not involve a killing in more than 15 years.

Florida’s attorney general, Bill McCollum, waived his right to file a response to Mr. Sullivan’s petition to the Supreme Court, a sign suggesting that he considers the case insubstantial if not frivolous. Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for Mr. McCollum’s office, declined to discuss the case.

Last month the court indicated it found the case more interesting than Florida does, requesting a response from the state. That probably means that at least one justice considered the case significant or at least difficult. But it is nothing like a guarantee that the court will agree to hear it.

On the other hand, the question of whether life without parole for juveniles is constitutional is the logical next step following the court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. Writing for the majority in that case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that even older teenagers are different from adults. They are less mature, more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to change for the better over time.

Last year, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the court issued another ruling that helps frame Mr. Sullivan’s case. That decision said crimes against individuals that did not involve killing, including the rape of a child by an adult, may not be punished by death.

In 2007, after Mr. Sullivan had served almost two decades in prison, a Florida appeals court declined to have another look at his case. The Roper decision, the appeals court said, “established only one new constitutional right, the right for a juvenile not to be given the death penalty.”

Douglas A. Berman, an authority on sentencing law at Ohio State, said that it is time for the Supreme Court and the legal system to widen its relentless focus on capital cases and to look at other severe sentences as well. Cases involving the death penalty receive careful review at multiple levels, he said. Life sentences can receive almost none.

Mr. Sullivan’s trial, for instance, lasted a day. He was represented by a lawyer who made no opening statement and whose closing argument occupies about three double-spaced pages of the trial transcript. The lawyer was later suspended, and the Florida Bar’s Web site says he is “not eligible to practice in Florida.”

There was biological evidence from the rape, but it was not presented at the trial. When Mr. Sullivan’s new lawyers recently sought to conduct DNA testing on it, they were told that the state had destroyed it in 1993.

“I absolutely believe he is innocent,” Bryan A. Stevenson, the executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, said of Mr. Sullivan. Mr. Stevenson said he believes that one of the older youths who committed the burglary with Mr. Sullivan and who testified against him was probably the actual assailant.

But the point made by Mr. Sullivan’s brief to the Supreme Court is not that he innocent. It is not even that he should be released after 20 years in prison. It is only that he should someday be allowed to make his case to the state parole commission.

“I don’t think it’s possible to say that a 13-year-old will never change and that life without parole is an appropriate punishment,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Aside from Mr. Sullivan’s case, it seems there is only one other appeals court decision about whether young teenagers may be locked away forever for rape. It was issued 40 years ago in Kentucky, and it involved two 14-year-olds. The court struck down the part of the sentences precluding the possibility of parole.

Juveniles, the court said, “are not permitted to vote, to contract, to purchase alcoholic beverages or to marry without the consent of their parents. It seems inconsistent that one be denied the fruits of the tree of the law, yet subjected to all of its thorns.”



3 Responses to “What Are Your Thoughts On This?”

  1. douglaskev said

    very interesting and controversial

    i cant say i would support a life sentence for this kid

    the problem with our criminal justice system is that it is vengeful

    there is no redeeming qualities about it, and it makes not attempt to rehabilitate.

    prison does none of us any favors when it is primarily used as a vehicle to wage a war against the poor, uneducated, underprivileged, etc.

    if you don’t believe me, compare the outcomes for those convicted of minor drug possession versus those guilty of embezzlement, fraud, white collar crime, etc…


  2. Pat Dazis said

    I am not shocked or amazed by this story and that is sad. Now days it seems the rule rather than the exception to assume a young person who commits or is accused of committing a serious crime is sent away for as long as possible even while those who are older regularly receive a much shorter sentence. This has happened over and over all over the country. The most recent in my memory is the little boy in Arizona who shot his father and their roommate. My first thought was there was some sort of abuse there. What would cause a little boy that young to do such a thing? Most times kids are thinking about games and fun not murder.
    To even consider a child to be a waste of our time is a further example of how our children have lost the priority of being valuable and our future.
    I hope this situation can be resolved in a fair manner, and in a hurry!


  3. Cassandra said

    The saddest thing about this is how little effort was put in to this particular trial. The boy was never clearly identified, and the other boy who was there, who was older, had a history of sexual violence. The 2 other boys made an agreement in order to lessen their sentences. This trial, as well as the verdict, makes a mockery of our judicial system and it’s so sad that so many people, because they have little money, are literally deprived of life because of their financial status and idiot lawyers.


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