Supreme Court will consider life sentences for juveniles

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

It did not take long for the judge to determine that the convicted rapist in front of him was irredeemable.

"He is beyond help," Judge Nicholas Geeker said of Joe Harris Sullivan. "I'm going to try to send him away for as long as I can."

And then Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, Sullivan was 13 years old.

Now, 20 years after that sentencing in a courtroom in Pensacola, Fla., the Supreme Court will consider whether Sullivan's prison term -- and what his supporters say is an only-in-America phenomenon of extreme sentences for juveniles -- violates the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The case -- which has drawn widespread notice and briefs from former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and others describing their own youthful crimes -- is likely to be a cardinal criminal justice decision for the court this term.

It is a natural outgrowth of the court's bitterly divided ruling in 2005 that juveniles cannot be executed for murders they commit.

Those challenging sentences of life without parole for teenagers base their optimism on words in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion in that case: "The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. . . . It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."

Sullivan is represented by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who said his client's sentence is no different from the punishment the court found unconstitutional.

"They are both effectively death sentences," Stevenson said in an interview. "One is death by execution, and the other is death by incarceration, but they are both terminal sentences."

Only two 13-year-olds in the country have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes that were not homicides, Stevenson said, and both of them are held in Florida.

Florida officials would not discuss Sullivan's case before the November arguments, but their brief to the court said states are within their rights to lock up forever those thought to pose a perpetual threat to society.

"There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery," Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar wrote.

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