At 13, the remainder of Joe Sullivan’s life came to a standstill as a judge in Pensacola, Florida sentenced the severely mentally disabled boy to life in prison without the possibility of parole as punishment for the rape of 72-year-old woman. Joe admitted he and some friends burglarized the woman’s house earlier in the day, but denied that he had returned later to rape the woman. In a trial that lasted only one day, the accuser was unable to identify her assailant and DNA evidence from the crime was never admitted. Joe Sullivan’s lawyer made no opening statement, barely made a closing argument, and was later suspended from the Florida Bar. Despite the denials and lack of hard evidence connecting Joe Sullivan to the rape, at 13 he was sentenced to die in prison.
Troubling as this case is, there are more like it.
The Equal Justice Initiative has asked the United States Supreme Court to review Mr. Sullivan’s case and determine whether sentencing someone who was barely a teenager at the time of the crime to die in prison for a crime that did not involve a killing satisfies the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. According to papers filed by EJI on Mr. Sullivan’s behalf, only eight people in the world are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were 13. Every one of those cases exists in the United States. Every single one of those offenders condemned to die in prison for a crime not involving a death is a person of color.
Mr. Sullivan’s requests represents a natural evolution of juvenile jurisprudence. In 2005 the Court in 2005 Roper v. Simmons struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by 16 and 17 year olds. Just last year, the Court held that death sentences for crimes that did not involve killings were unconstitutional.
Capital cases naturally receive extra attention, both by the courts and the press, but little if any scrutiny gets paid to those thousands upon thousands of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were just 13 or 14. Mountains of evidence show that young men and women are easy targets for physical or sexual assault in adult correctional facilities.
EJI has launched a litigation campaign to challenge the sentences of 13 and 14 year olds in eight states.
Every one of those challenges tells a history of poverty, violence, substance abuse and neglect. Each client suffered from a lack of competent legal help. Hopefully the Supreme Court hears Mr. Sullivan and EJI’s challenge to the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to die in prison for crimes committed when just 13 or 14. Thoughtlessly surrendering these children to the adult criminal justice system goes against every vein of fundamental decency and fairness our Constitutional system embraces.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.