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Supreme Court to Review Cases of Juveniles Sentenced to Life in Prison

Death is different. With those words, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 declared that the execution of adolescents was cruel and unusual punishment, and, hence, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling halted capital punishment for juveniles in 25 states.

Death is different.

With those words, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 declared that the execution of adolescents was cruel and unusual punishment, and, hence, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling halted capital punishment for juveniles in 25 states.

On Monday, the lawyers for two Florida men who, as juveniles, were sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicides will ask the nation’s highest court to declare the practice of incarcerating juveniles for the rest of their lives cruel and unusual, as well.

Life, the lawyers say, is different, too.

The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on the two cases:. The case of Terrance Jamar Graham, convicted of armed robbery in Duval County, will be heard first at 10 a.m.; the appeal of Joe Sullivan, a convicted rapist from Pensacola, will be heard an hour later.

“What’s at stake is that we have children who will die in prison because they have no right to parole, and there is no other option,” said Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who has been researching juvenile lifers for more than a decade. “What’s at stake is life and death.”

But for prosecutors, and some judges, the penultimate penalty of lifelong imprisonment is an important part of the nation’s criminal justice tool box — even for kids.

“Sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a weighty matter. Prosecutors do not seek such punishment lightly, nor do courts impose it without careful consideration,” the National District Attorneys Association wrote in a “friend of the court” brief.

“But youthful offenders sometimes commit heinous crimes — rapes, kidnappings, and violent robberies and assaults that may leave the victim maimed for life, or worse.”

For almost two decades, lawmakers and state juvenile justice administrators have mounted an unprecedented assault on youthful offenders — prosecuting teens in adult court, sending them to military-style boot camps and imposing long sentences as their weapons.


In the past couple of years, however, children’s advocates and some state corrections administrators — spurred by a series of scandalous deaths involving imprisoned Florida juveniles — have questioned whether the laws and policies went too far.

“We must strike the balance between providing for public safety, and providing opportunities for young people to learn from behaviors and receive the treatment and rehabilitation services needed to become productive members of their families and their communities,” the state’s 2008 Blueprint Commission on Juvenile Justice wrote.

It’s not surprising that the challenge to life imprisonment for juveniles would come from Florida. The overwhelming number of men serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were teens are in Florida prisons.

Of 109 prisoners across the United States serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles, 76 are in Florida, according to Annino’s research at Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center. A 77th inmate, Travis Underhill, sentenced in Broward County to life on an armed robbery, collapsed while playing basketball at a Palm Beach County prison on Oct. 8 and died.

Of the 76, eight were sentenced in Miami-Dade, and another eight were sentenced in Broward. Among the South Florida lifers:

• Thomas Rolle, who was a gunman in the botched, bloody robbery at Prince’s Bar-B-Que Pit in Brownsville after Christmas in 1995. Rolle, 16 at the time of the robbery, was sentenced to 40 years on three counts of second-degree murder stemming from the robbery, but was given life imprisonment for the robbery.

He’s now at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in the Panhandle.

• Milton Collier, who, at age 17, donned a mask when he robbed two women at gunpoint in southwest Miami-Dade in February 1995. After being spotted by a then-Metro-Dade police officer, Collier and an accomplice sped off, ramming into two cars before crashing. He is at the North West Florida Reception Center.

• Alain Troche, who was charged, at age 17, with nine counts of kidnapping and another two counts of armed robbery and burglary, violated his parole in May 1999 when he tried to rob a Tamarac man and his 8-year-old son in the man’s garage. Prosecutors tacked on new robbery and burglary charges. He is being held at Polk Correctional Institution.


But are such offenders incapable of turning their lives around?

Not really, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming wrote in a “friend of the court” brief to the Supreme Court.

Six-foot-seven-inches tall, and with the build of a defensive lineman — he later played for the University of Wyoming — Simpson was arrested in Laramie after a night of mayhem that included arson, destruction of federal property, and assaulting a police officer. He since concluded: “I was a monster.”

“I am not a bleeding heart,” the Republican, who served in the Senate from 1978 through 1996, told The Miami Herald. “I believe in capital punishment, and think it is perfectly appropriate.”

“I’m 78 years old. I’ve gone through the shifts and changes in life everyone goes through. I was rebellious, arrogant and stupid.” But after spending a night in jail, Simpson matured quickly, he said. “Those are horrible things they did, and I don’t defend them. But when a guy gets to be 30 or 40, you should reopen the file and look at it.”

But Abe Laeser, a retired 36-year Miami-Dade prosecutor, said, “There are some really bad people out there,” and added: “Just because you are six months or 10 months from reaching the magic age of 18, doesn’t change the fact you are essentially a broken toy at this point — and you are not going to get fixed.”

Some juveniles, Laeser said, simply have no empathy — and no amount of time is going to help them develop it. “These are scary guys. And they’re going to be scary in 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years.”

Critical Mass

Florida’s — and, indeed, the nation’s — crackdown on youth crime largely began a few hours before dawn on Sept. 15, 1993, when four teenagers, intent on robbery, shot two British tourists at a rest stop on Interstate 10 in Monticello. Margaret Ann Jagger, then 35, survived her injuries, her boyfriend, Gary Colley, 34, did not.

Industry leaders feared the killing — one of nine involving tourists during a one-year period — would deal a crippling blow to Florida’s critical tourism efforts.

At the same time, experts on youth crime were predicting an onslaught of “superpredators” — described as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters” who would menace the nation’s cities with a wave of rape, robbery and killing.

“Florida’s problem was particularly dire, compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international tourists, and threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry,” the state wrote in a brief to the high court. “During these years, many Americans considered the criminal justice system too easy on violent juvenile offenders and demanded reform.”

They got it. In 1993, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles convened two legislative sessions to combat violent crime; one session specifically looked at juveniles. “It is widely recognized,” Chiles said, “that juvenile crime has become the greatest single crime problem in America today.”

The result was the 1994 Juvenile Justice Act, which gave Florida judges greater discretion to sentence teens as adults, and a series of other laws requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their prison terms and serve enhanced sentences as repeat offenders.

The measures worked, prosecutors say in court documents. Juvenile crime in Florida declined by 30 percent in the decade from 1994 to 2004, mirroring a nationwide trend that saw violent crime by juveniles aged 12-17 decrease by 61 percent from 1993 to 2005.

Others view the law-and-order measures as only one ingredient in a complex stew.

“Getting tough on crime was probably one of the factors,” said FSU criminal justice professor Dan Mears, who worked for three years with delinquent youth in Texas. Other factors almost certainly include a dramatic improvement in the economy, the decline of crack cocaine in the cities, the development of teen courts and the rise in drug treatment and mental health services for at-risk kids, he said.

Today, the state imprisons 5,500 juveniles, or 285 per 100,000 of Florida’s under-18 population, at any given time — “well in excess of national norms,” the 2008 DJJ blueprint report says.

Though it is arguable whether life imprisonment is “cruel” under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, a life sentence is “truly and extremely unusual, and becoming more so every year,” lawyers for Sullivan, who is now 33, wrote in pleadings to the court.

“Only two 13-year-olds currently are sentenced to [life] for non-homicides in the United States, and Joe is one of only eight 13-year-old sentenced to die in prison for any crime. It has been more than 14 years since such a sentence was imposed for a non-homicide,” the lawyers wrote.

All of the 13- and 14-year-olds serving life terms without parole in Florida are African-American. And more than eight in 10 — or 84 percent — of all juvenile lifers who did not commit murder are black.

In his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sullivan cited the “freakishly rare” imposition of life sentences on 13-year-olds who did not kill as evidence of a “national consensus” opposed to such a punishment.

But 19 states wrote a “friend of the court” brief to the high court, arguing that they must be given the ability to imprison even juveniles for life when their crimes are are “so morally reprehensible, so damaging to victims, and so undermine a community’s sense of security.”

The brief was signed by the attorneys general of Louisiana, Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

“It is a rare and agonizing decision to sentence a juvenile to life-without-parole,” the states wrote. “But rare does not mean unconstitutional.”

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