« An effective call for President Bush to be a truly "compassionate conservate" with his clemency power | Main | Sentencing toughness one-way-ratchet warming up in North Carolina »

December 17, 2008

EJI files seeks cert on claim that juve LWOP is unconstitutional for 13-year-old offender

I just received a helpful e-mail from the folks at Equal Justice Initiative informing me of a recently filed cert petition challenging under the Eighth Amendment a sentence of life without parole given to an offender who was only 13 years old(!) at the time of his crime.  The full petition can be downloaded below, and here is additional information from this EJI link about this stunning case:

Joe Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-olds in the United States to be sentenced to die in prison for an offense in which no one was killed. Both of these sentences were imposed in Florida, making Florida the only state in the country to have sentenced a 13-year-old to die in prison for a non-homicide.

A severely mentally disabled boy, Joe was blamed by an older boy for a sexual battery that was allegedly committed when they broke into a home together.  The older boy received a short sentence in juvenile detention, but Joe was tried as an adult, convicted of sexual battery, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Only eight people in the country are sentenced to die in prison for any offense committed at age 13.

The lawyer who represented Joe in his one-day trial has since been suspended from the practice of law, and the biological evidence that could have exonerated Joe was destroyed in 1993.  The lawyer appointed to represent Joe on appeal informed the court that there were no issues in his case worth appealing. Joe was unable to challenge his conviction and sentence earlier because he could not afford legal assistance.

Joe has spent 19 years in a Florida prison, where he has been assaulted and suffered deteriorating health. He is now confined to a wheelchair. 

When I learn about cases like this, I have a hard time believing that a country founded on the principles of liberty has become so willing to be so repressive through our criminal justice systems.  Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I hope the US Supreme Court will take up this case.  And I am discouraged that this kind of case even exists and that officials in other branches of our government cannot bring themselves to address these kinds of sad cases and instead only will react if and when courts order them to be more just and sensible in their sentencing policies. 

Download Sullivan cert petition from EJI

December 17, 2008 at 09:30 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference EJI files seeks cert on claim that juve LWOP is unconstitutional for 13-year-old offender:


This case sure sounds awful, but I hesitate to think of a court laying down any sort of bright-line sentencing rule here (i.e., no life sentences for people under 18). Sentencing law should not be made in broad strokes. As the Supreme Court recognized in the Blakely line of cases, the trial courts are in the best position to make the numerous individualized determinations necessary to arrive at a just sentence.

Posted by: Prosecutorial Indiscretion | Dec 17, 2008 12:48:57 PM

Note that 18 is not the only place a line can be drawn (see Stanford v. Kentucky, drawing a line---later erased---at 16 for death penalty). This group seems to be focused on the particular (rare) situation of 13/14 year olds sentenced to LWOP.

It should also be noted that some of these sentences are actually the product of a *lack* of trial court discretion and a failure to allow for individualized determinations. When a young teen is tried as an adult (which may or may not require court approval), the charge itself can dictate an LWOP sentence, depending on state law of course. In such a case, the court is unable to assess and take account of the defendant's possible reduced culpability, the fact that he may have been influenced by older co-defendants, etc.

Posted by: Observer | Dec 17, 2008 1:29:31 PM

What needs to be done in this country is for juveniles to be tried in Juvenile court. Thats why it was created.
This headlong rush by prosecutors ,often seeking publisity, to charge Juvies as adults is frightening.A juvenile mind is not yet fully grown. To simply throw away a kids life because it makes a prosecutor or politician look good must stop
I know and am in contact with many youths now doing time in State prisons,many of whom have been tried an convicted as adults. I see the wast of life the waste of some often Brilliant minds here because of some archaiac Draconian laws.
With all this Get tough on crime crap do you see any drastic drop in crime. Is the sentencing of a 15 year old to 10 years for stealing a six pack of beer from a neighbors Garage make you feel safer? This is a true story.
it happened in Florida!
Does locking a 15-16 year old away for telephone # sentences for possessing 1/2 ounce of Grass make you feel safer. Does it deter the use of the drug much? NO. AND it doesnt get the major pushers off the street either. JIM<>

Posted by: James thom | Mar 29, 2009 3:36:01 PM

In response to James Thom. I totally agree with you. I just stumbled upon this whole 13 year old getting sentenced to life for murder and then I saw the case about Joe Sullivan and it blew my mind away. After reading about the circumstances of the Lawyer and the Evidence, I really lost faith in the justice system. The little that I have learned about law at my university has taught at least that the whole point of our system is to seek "justice" and not just seeking a scapegoat. I find it really hard to wrap my mind around how these cases have not been overturned! All of the other examples that you have provided, also have shown me that the U.S. needs to take a second look at the rights of its citizens under our constitution. To me its almost as if we are sweeping it under the rug ever so slowly. I really would like to study law now and fight the injustice that permeates our justice system.

Posted by: Felix Noy (student) | Apr 8, 2009 2:23:09 PM

I don't know if this will print.My son is serving his 1st prison sentencing His sentencing guidelines were Max sentence of 2 years and 11 months for credit card thief and fruad of his girlfriends card and breaking and entering a unsecured shicken house in the daytime and taking a broken generator that the court valued at $10.00 (ten) dollars. He was sentenced to 31 years with all but 8 suspended. He has never had a weapon charge or a violent conviction, or a distrubition charge that I am aware of. I believe the judge sentenced him because he owed back child support instead of the crime he plead guilty to after being advised to by the court appointed attorney as a indigent person. The judge also signed a wavier giving the court appointed attorney what he needed the charge him $3800.00 for him to plead guilty. This seems to me to be unduly harsh and I believe he sentenced him for the support rather than his crime.

Posted by: rebecca wolff | Aug 29, 2009 12:17:16 AM

The total amount of the cards were $400.36 which has been paid as restitution.

Posted by: rebecca wolff | Aug 29, 2009 12:18:58 AM

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