« Public shaming instead of incarceration in Pennsylvania theft case | Main | SCOTUS argument transcripts for two criminal justice cases argued today »

November 4, 2009

"All Locked Up: Did Joe Sullivan, sentenced to life at 13, have a fair trial?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece at Slate.  Here is how the piece gets started:

Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments, in Sullivan v. Florida, about whether sentencing a 13-year-old boy to prison without the possibility of parole violates the cruel-and–unusual-punishment clause of the Constitution. Joe Harris Sullivan is one of two teenagers that young currently doing life without parole for a nonhomicide offense in the United States. His lawyers are hoping that the court will extend its 2005 bar on executing criminals who committed crimes as juveniles to Sullivan's sentence.

Whatever the court decides, its ruling will be based on the premise that Sullivan received a fair trial.  The adequacy of that proceeding isn't before the justices now.  But a brief review of the trial record reveals a process so pathetic that it raises questions about whether Sullivan committed the crime in the first place.  It also seems that the trial judge may not have intended to sentence Sullivan to life without parole.  In the end, that judge, along with the prosecutor and defense lawyer, failed Sullivan so deeply that we have to wonder whether his sentence reflects a deep and basic failure of ordinary criminal justice.

November 4, 2009 at 02:32 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e20120a6a91620970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "All Locked Up: Did Joe Sullivan, sentenced to life at 13, have a fair trial?":

Comments

I don't understand the point the author is trying to make about killing the dog. Is killing a dog somehow more forgivable after breaking into a house than if someone sets out to do so intentionally? Seems like a perfectly ordinary application of something similar to the felony murder rule. I also don't see how the rehabilitation question would be before the judge. Once in adult court the normal considerations of juvenile court shouldn't apply. I had also not previously been aware that Sullivan had been in court before, that fact would also negate the point about not approaching the plea negotiation correctly. All in all this Slate piece actually made me less sympathetic towards this defendant.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 4, 2009 2:51:19 PM

What about the point where the defendant had a completely incompetent defense attorney? That seemed to me the larger issue revealed by this article. But maybe that has become so commonplace that is simply part of our background assumption about any indigent case.

Posted by: anon | Nov 4, 2009 3:05:04 PM

If innocent, he should be released. His innocence has no bearing on the validity of LWOP for juveniles. All guilty juveniles released by a Supreme Court decision should be moved into halfway houses on the streets where the criminal lovers running the Supreme Court live. Not where they work, a Fallujah like, law enforcement free area, thanks to the nearly total immunization of criminality by the criminal lover lawyer. That area is too dangerous even for criminals.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 4, 2009 3:18:45 PM

The little bastard is right where he belongs.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 4, 2009 5:10:27 PM

The fact that someone as well informed as Soronel was unaware Sullivan had *any* priors illustrates how biased the coverage of this case has been.

In fact, Sullivan had seventeen priors.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Nov 4, 2009 5:32:27 PM

Kent,

I was aware that Grahm had a significant criminal history, but not Sullivan. Are you sure you are not overstating Sullivan's history, mistaking him for the older offender?

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 4, 2009 6:03:28 PM

Kent is correct. Sullivan was a bad boy.

Posted by: flop | Nov 4, 2009 6:39:37 PM

Brief for Respondent at page 6:

"Based on the evidence, the jury convicted Sullivan. [Tr. II 250-51] His sentencing hearing was held on December 12, 1989. [Tr. III 266-78] The state highlighted Sullivan’s extensive record, including prior offenses of burglary where Sullivan had killed a dog and a prior assault on one of his counselors. [Tr. III 269-270, 271] The presentence reports indicated that Sullivan had committed seventeen criminal offenses in the two years prior to the rape, including several serious felonies. [Tr. III 268-270] He had failed to adjust to juvenile detention and had assaulted other juveniles while in a commitment facility. As a result, he scored 846 points under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, well over the 583 points needed to impose a life sentence. [Tr. III 269 (state attorney noting that 'It’s not even close.')]"

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Nov 4, 2009 7:33:29 PM

It never ceases to amaze how journos will slant a story for the benefit of a criminal.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 4, 2009 7:49:40 PM

In the rare case, like this one, where the defendant's record establishes an extremely strong disposition toward crime, society has the right to protect itself rather than sacrifice the next victim, and the next and the next.

To say that this hoodlum had plenty of chances to straighten up hardly captures it. The fuzzy bromide that "young people can change" is no answer to a specific record as stuffed full of recidivism as this one.

LWOP for juveniles should be rare, and it is. To maintain that it is NEVER consistent with the Eighth Amendment is simply the triumph of simpering ideology over case-specific evidence -- which, unfortunately, is exactly why Justice Kennedy will embrace it for a 5-4 Court.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 4, 2009 8:24:59 PM

To sentence a 13yo is incapable of change is folly. It ignores the fact that he was 13yo, a 13yo is not mature is not adult, his personality is not set in stone.

The "fuzzy bromide" that locking juveniles up for life protects society represents a failure of US legal, correctional and prosecutorial authorities

Posted by: alan | Nov 5, 2009 2:19:49 AM

Thank you Kent. Too bad he evidently adjusted to prison instead of getting a shank in his back.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 5, 2009 9:40:59 AM

alan --

"To sentence a 13yo is incapable of change is folly. It ignores the fact that he was 13yo, a 13yo is not mature is not adult, his personality is not set in stone."

That's true. He could get worse.

"The 'fuzzy bromide' that locking juveniles up for life protects society represents a failure of US legal, correctional and prosecutorial authorities."

In a few rare cases, locking up a juvenile for life will in fact protect society. Do you deny this?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 5, 2009 10:21:13 AM

Maybe this kid disproves Father Flanagan's bad-boy theory and needs to permanently quarantined.

Yet I always wonder when the authorities trot out lengthy rap sheets of really young youthful offenders whether any methods other than getting progressively "tougher" were ever tried.

Regardless, what we end up with is a story of a kid who's about to be warehoused for six or seven decades instead of one about a remarkable turnaround for boy who got off to a really bad start.

Posted by: John K | Nov 5, 2009 11:30:43 AM

"In a few rare cases, locking up a juvenile for life will in fact protect society. Do you deny this?"

Bill Otis, I don't deny it, but that's not a justification. In a few rare cases, locking up innocent people who we think might commit future crimes will protect society. Do you deny this?

What if the child was 10? Any change in your result?

Posted by: Leon Sinoff | Nov 5, 2009 12:09:54 PM

Soronel, were you being sarcastic when you said: "Too bad he evidently adjusted to prison instead of getting a shank in his back"?

Posted by: DEJ | Nov 5, 2009 12:54:50 PM

Leon Sinoff --

Me: "In a few rare cases, locking up a juvenile for life will in fact protect society. Do you deny this?"

You: "I don't deny it, but that's not a justification."

It most certainly IS a justification. Indeed the protection of society is the principal, and a universaly accepted, justification for criminal punishments of any sort.

"In a few rare cases, locking up innocent people who we think might commit future crimes will protect society. Do you deny this?"

I deny it as a proper or accepted function of the criminal justice system, which predicates punishment on proven (or admitted) behavior. And it's a stretch, to put it politely, to conflate speculation about the possible future dangerousness of an innocent person with a long and established criminal record compiled by a guilty one.

"What if the child was 10? Any change in your result?"

And what if he were 2? This sort of argument is just nonsense, about a half step ahead of the brain-dead line, "What would Jesus do?". Lines have to be drawn somewhere, and there will always be difficult cases at the margin. Every adult knows this, and I'm sure you do too.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 5, 2009 4:52:23 PM

DEJ,

Not especially sarcastic. I'm with Supremacy Clause on 123d. If the state can't or won't we can always hope another inmate will.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 5, 2009 5:23:05 PM

The Salon article is arguing that Sullivan received an incompetent criminal defense in a LWOP case. The evidence that he was a rapist rather than merely a burglar is hard to see meeting the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

The discussion of the prior with the accidental killing of a dog in a burglary (and incidentally, the fact that killing a dog is property damage rather than murder is one of the classic trick questions on criminal law class exams and bar exams), simply suggests that his prior conduct didn't show that he was unredeemably psychopathic, since one of the textbook symptoms of psychopathy is intentionally torturing animals and then moving on to people. If burglarly is a serious felony, and he is a repeat serious felon, that still hardly puts him at the top of the list for dangerous criminals. Most serious felony property crimes are recidivist in nature. Eleven year to thirteen year old repeat burglars don't generally fit the image society has create of people who need LWOP.

At any rate, the Salon article is not really an argument about the appropriateness of juvenile LWOP. It is an argument about the generally low level of due process on display in Florida in such a serious case.

The possibility of a sentence of LWOP is relevant only because (1) it shows that this is a case that public defenders should have known called for extraordinary defense efforts, rather than a half-hearted one day trial on thin evidence followed by half an hour of deliberation, and (2) the trial judge's statements make him seemed confused about whether LWOP was a possibility in the case. It is hard to imagine a system where neither the judge nor the criminal defense attorney show any confident sign that they realize that the defendant is facing LWOP doing a meaningful job of providing due process and convicting the right people of the right crimes.

Nobody thinks that Sullivan was not a repeat felon at thirteen. He was convicted of burglary, and then, after spending time in juvenile detention, went out and admittedly committed another home invasion burglary. He isn't an angel. He's not just some shoplifting, pranking, overexuberant kid. But, the evidence that he did more was not established beyond a reasonable doubt, and if his case can fall though the cracks, surely the criminal justice system in that part of Florida is overall a travesty of justice. His case certainly isn't the only one to suggest that the Florida criminal justice system is broken. In another recent case, a guy was convicted a felony possession of prescription drugs pursuant to a prescription.

This case looks a lot like the negative stereotype of Southern justice that one sees over and over again. Indeed, the fact that these kinds of cases are handled the way that they are at all is one of the strongest arguments for the continued role of federal courts in the supervision of the state criminal justice system.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 5, 2009 9:15:44 PM

I IM JOE SULLIVAN SISTER I HEARD ENOUGH THERE WERE TWO MORE GUY WITH JOE TWO COUSIN TURN STATE ON HIM FOR LESS TIME ONE HAS PRIOR HISTORY OF RAPE NOT JOE . JOE HAD NO CHANCE AT LIFE WHERE WERE NO EVIDENCE IN COURT HIS FAMILY NORE JUDGE SEEN NOTHING. ASK FOR DNA BEFORE ACUSING SOMEONE WHO'S INNOCENT.

Posted by: jen | Nov 9, 2009 2:16:52 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB