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May 17, 2010

Comments from EJI about the Graham decision and Joe Sullivan's case

Among the folks who likely should get significant "credit" for today's landmark Eighth Amendment ruling in Graham are Bryan Stevenson and the other folks at the Equal Justice Initiative who have kept a bright spotlight on the juve LWOP issue ever since the Supreme Court's juve capital decision in Roper.  EJI represented Joe Sullivan in his appeals up through the Supreme Court, and the folks there have done important legal and policy work on these issues that surely played a huge role in today's events.  And though the Justices ended up DIGing Joe Sullivan's case, the majority opinion in Graham used the facts of Joe Sullivan's case to justify its holding; I feel confident that SCOTUS granted cert on this issue in the first instance in large part because of the extraordinary advocacy efforts of EJI and Bryan Stevenson.

On its website, EJI now has this press release about the decision, which describes the ruling as "historic."  (Side questions for SCOTUS adjective mavens:  is it more impressive for a SCOTUS opinion to be called landmark or historic?  Which is a better label for Graham?)  In addition, the folks at EJI sent me a note about Joe Sullivan's situation via e-mail which I reprint here:

A number of journalists have asked about how today's decision in Graham v. Florida applies to Joe Sullivan and the other juvenile offenders serving life in prison without parole sentences in non-homicide cases.  Here is background information on that question from attorneys for Joe Sullivan at Equal Justice Initiative:

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Graham v. Floridacreates a categorical rule barring life imprisonment without parole for children under age 18 who commit a non-homicide offense.  Joe Sullivan, and other juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes, are entitled to relief under today’s ruling.  The Court “dismissed as improvidently granted” rather than issue a separate decision in Joe Sullivan’s case because it was unnecessary: the Court did not draw a line between young kids and older kids, and the ruling in Graham applies to Joe Sullivan.  Joe’s case is discussed in the Graham decision as an example why the categorical rule created by the Court is necessary.  Every categorical rule of the sort announced by the Court today has been held retroactive because it puts outside of governmental authority the ability to impose this punishment.  There should be no confusion that Joe Sullivan’s life in prison without parole sentence has been invalidated by today’s decision.

The procedural issue involved in the Sullivan case was whether the Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, barring the death penalty for juveniles, applied to cases involving life in prison without parole as a “new rule” that would give more Joe time to appeal his sentence.  Bryan Stevenson, counsel for Joe Sullivan, said the Court unquestionably held that it did, but even if it did not, Grahamitself is a new ruling that permits Joe and all other juveniles sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicides to appeal their sentences and entitles them to a “realistic opportunity to obtain release.”

May 17, 2010 at 06:26 PM | Permalink

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