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February 2, 2009

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

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this latest piece by Adam Liptak in the New York Times.  The article is focused on this case of Joe Sullivan, whose cert petition I posted in this recent entry.  Here are excerpts from the Times article:

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 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.

Some related posts on juve LWOP and the Sullivan case:

February 2, 2009 at 08:11 PM | Permalink


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What is the purpose of the American South, if not to lock up young black males for as long as possible? If Florida can't do this, it may as well not even exist.

Posted by: DK | Feb 2, 2009 10:16:02 PM

I don't think a 13 year old should be in jail for life. But I find Doug's post ironic because just a few posts below he writes, "This story provides yet another example of the one-way ratchet of criminal laws and the potential harm of legislative reactions to *one awful crime*." (emphasis added). I agree. So why is the overreaction to the awful crime of locking up a 13 year old for life justified and the overreaction to Megan case a bad example? Do you like little black boys better than little white girls?

As DK posts shows, it's just as possible to overact to one crime against a young black male as it is to overact to one crime against a young white girl.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 2, 2009 11:34:18 PM


A couple reasons the situations are different:

1. the crime (if we are referring to it as a crime--it is, at least, an outrage) against the 13 year old was perpetrated *by the state* which means that it implicates civil liberties issues that are not present when a sicko individual does something horrible to a child (in fact, that individual has usually been punished by the time the legislative overreaction occurs).

2. the "victim" in this case is still suffering from the "crime" (and if he never did anything to that woman, take the scare quotes off victim), so it is possible to act directly on the original problem/crime

3. the correction to this "crime" actually involves a reaffirmation of our civil liberties, rather than a dangerous contraction of them in the name of "safety".

Posted by: Observer | Feb 3, 2009 9:25:12 AM

Does the name, Lionel Tate, mean anything to you guys? Tate killed a 6 yo girl when he was 12. He was originally sentenced to a long prison stretch. The usual suspects (screaming racism etc.) whined about the sentence. Tate wound up getting an extremely light sentence, and how did he repay society's solicitude? By sticking a gun in someone's face. Nice.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 3, 2009 10:34:41 AM

We really need to quit pussy-footing around. Let's repeal the Bill of Rights, replace it with a Victim's Bill of Rights, and permit crime victims of Tate to testify at Sullivan's trial.

Posted by: George | Feb 3, 2009 11:27:55 AM

It is also possible that Tate (who claimed he accidentally killed his little sister while executing some kind of hair-brained WWF move) did not come out the better for spending his developmental years, from 12 to 17, in the custody of the State of Florida.

Not excusing his sticking a gun in someone's face, but we should consider the totality of the circumstances before using his example to justify harsh treatment across the board for kids. It took the State 5 years to recognize its mistake in treating a 12-year-old like a hardened adult offender to be warehoused rather than a child who needed guidance, rehabilitation, and training. It is possible, at least, that those 5 years of adult treatment helped create the anti-social behavior that, ironically, can now be used to justify similar treatment for others.

Posted by: Observer | Feb 3, 2009 1:25:14 PM

"Not excusing his sticking a gun in someone's face . . . ."

Maybe you're not, but you're laying the intellectual groundwork for releasing people like Tate with predictable consequences.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 3, 2009 1:32:04 PM

Let's take anecdotal evidence from one situation and make a blanket law covering everybody. Or, just cut to the chase and lock every offender up until our sense of vengeance is satisfied. After all, there's nothing more satisfying than punishing our fellow human, is there fed?

Posted by: Mark | Feb 3, 2009 1:36:37 PM

Tate is by no means an outlier. And I think you know that Mark. The issue, of course, is not my "satisfaction", but public safety. Many people consider themselves enlightened because they have solicitude towards criminals and they consider people like me trogolodytes. But I at least acknowledge that sending a 12 year old to prison for a long stretch is harsh. Not too many who decry the criminal justice system's harshness acknowledge the unmitigated harshness visited on people by violent criminals released after a too short sentence. With respect to the criminal, at least he did something to get the harsh treatment, with respect to an innocent citizen, well, that's just the price of being "stylish" (Bonus points to anyone who can guess the movie reference.)

Posted by: federalist | Feb 3, 2009 1:48:34 PM

I always enjoy your engagement, federalist, though I continue to wonder just you never seem nearly as worked up by the "innocent" victims of drunk drivers as you are about the "innocent" victims of juve offenders. As I have stressed repeatedly, statistics show that drunk drivers pose a greater persistent threat to public safety than any other class of offenders. But I do not recall any complaining from you about the "stylish" costs of a system that is persistently soft on these types of offenders (especially when they come from upper middle class backgrounds like Michael Phelps).

You get strong reactions to your tough talk perhaps because it seems inconsistent (dare I say "stylish") when you decide that concerns for public safety should trump all other public values. Perhaps you are sorry that Michael Phelps was allowed to go free after his drunk driving conviction (after all, now we know he is a drug offender, too). But, especially since it often seems that skin color plays a large role in distinguishing which juves get a second chance, I wish you would seek to push beyond simplistic assertions about public safety when making your points.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 3, 2009 2:38:20 PM

Idea, similar Henry Ford had))

Posted by: Wasd | Feb 3, 2009 3:12:59 PM

As I have indicated in posts, Doug, I do believe that we need to enforce laws against drunk driving. We have a long way to go. However, aside from the occasional crackpot, there isn't much debate in here about drunk driving and the need to deal with the problem.

Clearly, repeat drunk driving offenders need to get some harsh medicine, and they don't always do. And that's a problem. But no one seems to dispute that here. Consequently, I don't understand where you're coming from--are you implying that because we don't do enough to drunk drivers that we need to be less harsh to other criminals.

Your comment about Michael Phelps is interesting. I had no idea that he had a drunk driving conviction. As for him smoking some herb--I am not really all that draconian on marijuana usage. The fine should be a pretty hard hit, and there should be some kind of community service, but I don't think there's much to be gained from a resources allocation perspective here. (And no, I've never sampled any marijuana.)

I don't really know enough about drunk driving to know what the penalties ought to be for a first offense. I assume that the relevant issues are the age of the offender, the amount of alcohol, the other attending issues with the driving (i.e., high rate of speed). The reality is that there is not the political will to incarcerate all drunk drivers for long periods of time.

I cannot help but notice your reference to race in juvenile adjudications. I do recall a study (that got some ink on WaPo's editorial page) that didn't control for the juvenile's criminal history. In any event, I'd be willing to bet that there is a significant "urban discount" when it comes to serious juvenile crimes, and that "urban discount" benefits, among others, minority juvenile criminals.

Lastly, I think that you misconstrue my "toughness" for simplicity. I think it fairly obvious that many people who commit crimes against the person do so on a regular basis. Typically, a mugger doesn't mug an old lady once. Thus, when you lock someone up for mugging, you likely prevent a lot of muggings. I also think that my observation about risk allocation is apt and not simplistic.

I also think that you ignore my statements that a prison bed is a scarce resource and my approval of clemency programs like that of Maryland Gov. Ehrlich.

And since we;re going to toss around accusations of simplicity, let me point out that an argument that incarceration of a large number of people is inconsistent with our freedom is simplistic hogwash. First of all, basic safety is a key component of freedom. Second of all, criminals, by definition, do something to justify getting their liberty taken away. On a macro level, your arguments can be summed up thusly: we're a mean hypocritical society that locks up too many people, especially minorities.

And, to close, I think you ignore the moral component to "public safety". You risk the innocent to benefit the guilty. Before you call me "simplistic", please try, just try to deal with that moral issue.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 3, 2009 4:13:09 PM

There are also "predictable consequences" of skewing a system so heavily toward retribution and incapacity, at the expense of rehabilitation. And they can be just as devastating, even if they aren't always as easily traceable.

Posted by: Observer | Feb 3, 2009 4:29:31 PM

Observer, is our system really that skewed? Generally speaking, in America, you gotta do something really really bad to get serious time here.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 3, 2009 5:53:06 PM

Observer. You completely missed my point. I quite agree that the situations are different. But they are alike in one key way. In both situations, there is an attempt to base broad public policy goals on the basis of situations that are statistical outliers. I quite agree with Doug that this is wrong. It's just that I would hold that it's always wrong. I don't condone locking up 13 year olds for life. But I think that as a matter of public policy these situations should be treated as what they are: one-offs. These situations are indicative of nothing, they represent nothing, they have no larger or more symbolic meaning whatsoever; they are simply a random error. And I think that's just as true of the crime of the brutal killing of a little white girl as I do for the "crime" of locking a 13 year old black boy up.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 3, 2009 6:27:23 PM

Observer wrote: "There are also 'predictable consequences' of skewing a system so heavily toward retribution and incapacity, at the expense of rehabilitation. And they can be just as devastating, even if they aren't always as easily traceable."

Prevention is where real expense is taken. It precedes all of retribution, incapacity, and rehabilitation. We should be working on a society that requires none of the latter inefficiencies.

federalist wrote: "And, to close, I think you ignore the moral component to 'public safety'. You risk the innocent to benefit the guilty. Before you call me 'simplistic', please try, just try to deal with that moral issue.

The moral issue? Like not being bothered to spare murder victims by enacting policies stabilizing the lives of the underclass because you think it will cost you tax money, reflecting the perfect storm of selfishness (refusal to ensure that that fellow citizens have basic necessities within the society) and ignorance (disbelief against all evidence and academic knowledge that economic inequality causes criminal conduct) responsible for the United States being a third world country with a high violent crime rate dressed in first world garb?

You ignore the moral component to public safety. Your "tough on crime" posture is anything but, so long as you advocate for economic and social policies that guarantee the continued rampant creation of crime victims, as anybody with an ounce of sense understands. Murderers are your intermediaries, and you take refuge in political posturing to avoid accountability for the consequences of your actions.

Posted by: DK | Feb 4, 2009 12:27:14 AM

Daniel, I think I see. I thought you just meant it's not worth spending resources on outlier cases. And I meant to say that it may be worthwhile to spend resources correcting the problem in *this* case, even though it is an outlier, because the collateral consequences are actually *good*: reasserting limits on government power, affirming civil liberties, actually helping the person whose rights have been violated, etc.

But, of course, I'm sure people who are in favor of very harsh sex offender laws, etc., apply the same reasoning when they choose to highlight extremely disturbing crimes in pushing *their* preferred policies. And I think that is your point: Reasoning from freaky, outlying cases is a bad form of reasoning (from behind a veil so to speak), even if it might work for us on a practical level in some circumstances.

So, I think I see the structural/theoretical argument (never reason broadly from outlying results), but I guess the cynic in me is drawn to the more contextual/realpolitik view: in practice, it is probably very hard to keep the public debate from revolving around outlier cases, so if there is a chance to reach a broad audience for a worthwhile idea through such a case, do it.

Federalist: You have a good point. I actually was thinking "prevention" (a category which for me includes addressing serious, untenable inequalities of resources and opportunity along geographic, class and racial lines) but I wrote "rehabilitation". Although we might not agree on the needed policies, it sounds like we might agree that if we don't somehow get at underlying, structural issues, a significant and unacceptable level of crime will persist---regardless, as you suggest, of the choice of back-end "solutions".

Night, folks. Nice thread.

Oops. For "Federalist," Read "DK." I thought it was weird that we were agreeing, but I was going with it...

So, for federalist: Off the top of my head, I would say, somewhat fliply: If you think possession of plants is really bad, I agree. (I know, lots of people are in jail for trafficking, etc., but there are plenty in jail for possession or small-time dealing...) Less fliply, I would say, yes, I think it is skewed even beyond drug policy, but I will have to save a fuller explanation for when I am not at work after midnight on deadline (a lame escape, I know).

Posted by: Observer | Feb 4, 2009 1:37:23 AM

From my blog:

Compare Joe Sullivan's case with that of the King boys.

Alex and Derek King were 12-and-13-years-old, respectively, when they killed their father on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 2001, with a baseball bat, in his Cantonment home near Pensacola, then set the house afire.

After the boys were convicted of second-degree murder, for which they could have been sentenced to 22 years to life in prison, the COurt granted a motion to throw out the convictions and ordered mediation. Yes, mediation in a murder case.

After a week of mediation the State agreed that in exchange for a plea to third-degree murder, Alex would serve seven years in prison and Derek would serve eight years.

After the case the court-appointed mediator, Bill Eddins, said the plea deal was intended to provide structure for the boys, whose mother left them when they were young. He is quoted as saying "They have had instability in their life, it became very important to give them structure and stability."

FYI, Eddins is now the State Attorney for 1st Judicial Circuit of Florida, which includes Pensacola. Makes you wonder what he might say about sentencing a 13-year-old to life for rape.

Posted by: Bert | Feb 4, 2009 1:45:37 PM

federalist, your statement that Lionel Tate is "by no means an outlier" is not only wrong, it's obviously so. If it were true, you wouldn't even be able to remember his name, let alone use him as a billy club. Of *course* he's an outlier.

And that's why Mark's right, and you're wrong. You say Lionel Tate, I say Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise. Hey, there's *five* of them, does that mean I win?

Stop arguing policy by anecdote.

Posted by: Jay Macke | Feb 4, 2009 2:20:12 PM

Maybe Jay, and maybe their confessions weren't inaccurate after all.

And Jay, let's let all those juvie killers/rapists out after a few years and see what happens.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 4, 2009 3:13:49 PM

The only people who hold onto the validity of those prosecutions are the people who can't admit their own mistakes in the prosecution, or who can't admit that there are flaws in the justice system. You've revealed yourself as one of them. You've capped this off with nothing but a fearmongering prediction with no factual basis.

I'm sorry, but I don't see a single reason why should anyone take your opinions about juvenile justice seriously.

Posted by: Jay Macke | Feb 5, 2009 9:02:12 AM


Posted by: Litraw | Feb 5, 2009 9:57:57 AM

My new favorite practice while reading this blog is scrolling down far enough to see who posted any given comment.

If it says, DK, I know I should skip that one since it contains much rhetoric completely divorced from reality thus completely undermining any legitimate point the rest of the comment may contain. It's really quite unfortunate but it saves my neck from a lot of head-shaking.

That is all.

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