Should kids be locked up for life when they commit serious crimes? It's a question the U.S. Supreme Court may soon address if it agrees to hear the appeal of Joe Sullivan, a Florida man who is serving a life without parole sentence for crimes he committed when he was just 13.
Sullivan has spent 20 years in jail for the rape and robbery of a 72-year-old woman. He admits that he and two older boys did break into the victims home, but has consistently maintained that he did not participate in raping the victim. According to the New York Times, evidence in the prosecutor's case against Sullivan is shaky. For example, the woman he is accused of raping could not positively identify Sullivan as her attacker. She could only remember that the assailant was “a colored boy” who “had kinky hair” and was “quite black.” When Sullivan was made to repeat a phrase that the rapist had said during the attack, the victim could only say that Sullivan's voice sounded “similar” to her attacker's.
Sullivan’s attorneys have not asked the Supreme Court to overturn their client's conviction. They have, however, asked the Justices to consider whether the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for child offenders is "cruel and unusual" punishment. According to both court papers and a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, only eight people in the entire world are currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were 13. All of them are in the United States. Only two of those boys were convicted of crimes other than murder, and each of those cases involved an African American defendant convicted in Florida.
Noting the rarity of these cases, the Times reported that there has been only one other appeals court decision addressing whether a teenager can receive a life without parole sentence for the crime of rape. That case originated in Kentucky, where an appeals court ultimately struck down the sentencing provision banning parole for young offenders. The appeals court found that juveniles “are not permitted to vote, to contract, to purchase alcoholic beverages or to marry without the consent of their parents…it seems inconsistent that one be denied the fruits of the tree of the law, yet subjected to all of its thorns.”
It is unknown whether the Supreme Court will accept Sullivan's appeal, but the Court has asked Florida to provide a response in the case - an indication that at least one Justice has decided to probe further into the question at hand.