Maybe Cruel, Definitely Unusual

February 3, 2009 | | Comments Off on Maybe Cruel, Definitely Unusual

After a one day trial, 13-year-old Joe Sullivan was convicted of burglary and rape, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  He and his friends had burglarized the house of an elderly woman, and she was raped, though it is unclear whether Sullivan was the rapist.  Now 33, Sullivan is asking the Supreme Court to consider whether such a sentence imposed on minor violates the Eighth Amendment.

Sullivan is not arguing innocence, though his representation at trial and guilt of the rape charge were both questionable.  Rather, Sullivan and his lawyers are arguing that sentencing a child barely in his teens to life, without the possibility of parole, is cruel and unusual.  Sullivan would merely like the right to argue his case to a parole board.

Should the Supreme Court take certiorari on the case, it will be interesting to see how the decisions in Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008) will frame the question.  The decision in Roper struck down the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds, and Kennedy barred the use of the death penalty for adults in crimes that do not involve killing.  While a life sentence is certainly distinguishable from the death penalty, the court may decide to broaden its recent inquiries into punishment, using its decisions narrowing the application of capital punishment as a frame.

This kind of sentence is rarely imposed on such a young person.  According to a report compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative, there are 73 persons in the United States currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were 13 or 14 years old.  By and large, this is due to mandatory sentencing that does not permit a judge to take into account maturity, age, or ability to change into account when sentencing.  Perhaps an examination by the Supreme Court would force, rather than forbid, judges to take such factors into consideration.  Whether the resulting sentence was discretionary or mandatory, the report also poses some interesting questions about whether the sentences affect poor minors and racial minorities disproportionately.  The fact that life sentences rarely come under subsequent review (as compared with the review of capital cases) serves only to exacerbate the problem, it seems.

Whether or not the court upholds the sentence, if it should decide to address the issue the result and reasoning will certainly prove interesting.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mashget.


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