Life prison sentences for minors divide court
No chance of parole is cruel for non-homicide cases, attorneys say
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The Supreme Court appeared split Monday along familiar ideological lines over whether the Constitution forbids locking up forever juveniles whose crimes fall short of homicide.
Attorneys for two Florida men sentenced as teenagers to life in prison without parole argued that such terms violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Certainly it is unusual, said Bryan Stevenson, the attorney for Joe Harris Sullivan, who was sentenced at age 13 for raping an elderly woman. Only two cases exist of someone that young receiving life in prison without parole, he said, both in Florida.
"But we also contend to say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel," Stevenson said. "It can't be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children, about the character of children. It cannot be reconciled with our standards of decency."
But conservatives on the court wondered where the Constitution makes such distinctions based on age. "There is certainly nothing in the Eighth Amendment that suggests there is a difference between 16 and 17," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, or any other line that the advocates would have the court draw.
The attorneys pointed out that the court made such a distinction in 2005, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to execute anyone younger than 18 for murder. But as Roberts and others reiterated through the nearly two hours of arguments, "death is different."
The advocates said the meaning of the decision was also that adolescents are different.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in that 5 to 4 decision, wondered why adults could be sentenced to life in prison without parole if juveniles deserved another chance.
"Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?" he asked.
"Because the juvenile is different than an adult," said Bryan Gowdy, the attorney for Terrance Jamar Graham, who was sentenced at 17 to life in prison without parole for an armed robbery and a home invasion.
"A juvenile is less culpable. He's -- we know over time he will change and potentially reform, as opposed to an adult," he said. "Once you are fully formed, you are more culpable and you don't have that same inherent capacity to change."
But Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that retribution is also part of the equation, and that society has a right to punish severely for heinous crimes, even those by juveniles.