Is a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole a cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense?
Appealed from: Florida First District Court of Appeal (Graham v. Florida, Apr. 10, 2008; Sullivan v. Florida, June 17, 2008)Terrance Jamar Graham ("Graham") committed an armed burglary when he was sixteen years old. Joe Harris Sullivan committed sexual battery when he was thirteen years old. Both men are currently serving life sentences in the State of Florida ("Florida") with no possibility of parole. Graham and Sullivan each argue that sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Florida counters that such sentences are not constitutionally barred and reflect a state's considered legislative response to the growing problem of juvenile crime. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether juveniles may be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for committing non-homicide offenses.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Graham v. Florida:
1. Whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits sentencing a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Sullivan v. Florida:
1. Whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit sentencing a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; and,
2. Whether the Supreme Court may review a recently evolved Eighth Amendment claim where a state court has refused to do so, and dismissed the post-conviction motion on independent and adequate state law grounds.
Graham v. Florida
Petitioner, Terrance Jamar Graham ("Graham"), is a twenty-two-year-old man serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in the State of Florida. On July 18, 2003, at the age of 16, Graham and several other juvenile accomplices burglarized a restaurant. In December 2003, Graham pled guilty to charges of armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed robbery. Under the plea agreement, the court withheld an adjudication of guilt and sentenced Graham to three years of probation. The court required Graham to spend 12 months of the probationary period in a pre-trial detention facility.
Florida released Graham from the detention facility in June 2004. Six months later, on the night of December 2, 2004, Graham allegedly took part in an armed home invasion robbery in which he held a gun to a victim's head. Later that night, a police officer attempted to pull Graham over for a traffic violation but Graham fled, leading police on a lengthy car chase along residential streets. As a result, Florida accused Graham of violating the terms of his probation. One year later, in December 2005 and January 2006, the court held a hearing and found that Graham violated his probation. In May 2006, the court sentenced Graham to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the initial armed burglary charge, and 15 years, to be served concurrently, for the charge of attempted armed robbery.
In June 2006, Graham appealed his life sentence to the Florida First District Court of Appeal (the “District Court of Appeal”), alleging that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment, that it was disproportionate to the crime he committed, and that it violated international norms. The District Court of Appeal rejected each of Graham's arguments, and the Florida Supreme Court declined jurisdiction. Graham then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on May 4, 2009.
Sullivan v. Florida
Petitioner, Joe Harris Sullivan (“Sullivan”), is a thirty-three-year-old man serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in Florida. At the age of 13, Sullivan and two other juveniles broke into the empty home of an elderly woman to steal jewelry and coins. Sullivan and one of the accomplices returned later in the day when the woman was home. After entering the home, Sullivan forcibly took the woman to the bedroom where he beat and raped her.
Sullivan was tried as an adult and convicted of two counts of sexual battery, two counts of burglary of a dwelling, and one count of grand theft. Despite his young age, Sullivan had an extensive criminal history, including several felonies. Considering Sullivan's record, the judge concluded that an adult sentence was appropriate and sentenced Sullivan to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the sexual battery charges and thirty-two years for the burglary charges.
The District Court of Appeal upheld Sullivan’s conviction in May 1991 and the Florida Supreme Court dismissed review one month later. In 2007, after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Roper v. Simmons that the states could not impose the death penalty on juvenile offenders, Sullivan filed a motion for post-conviction relief. Sullivan claimed that Roper rendered his life sentence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The trial court denied Sullivan’s claim, stating that Roper did not establish a constitutional ban on the sentence of life imprisonment for juveniles and that the Florida Supreme Court had already decided not to extend Roper to prohibit such a sentence. The District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision. Because, under Florida law, the Florida Supreme Court could not review the appeal, Sullivan petitioned the United States Supreme Court, which granted a writ of certiorari on May 4, 2009.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits states from inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” upon a criminal defendant. Over the past thirty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has refined its jurisprudence regarding whether a specific sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, the Court has created several categorical rules regarding classes of defendants, including juveniles, who are exempt from the death penalty. These cases present the Court with the opportunity to consider whether the rationale behind exempting juveniles from the death penalty also justifies exempting a juvenile from life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense.
To prove an Eighth Amendment violation, a petitioner must demonstrate that the sentence imposed raises an inference of “gross disproportionality.” If a petitioner adequately demonstrates “gross disproportionality” between the crime committed and the sentence imposed, the court will then undertake a comparative analysis, analyzing whether the imposed sentence is an outlier among state and international criminal justice systems. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court set forth a categorical rule that imposing the death penalty on a juvenile defendant always violates the Eighth Amendment, reasoning that juveniles are not as culpable as adults, are more susceptible to peer pressure and negative influences, and have not fully developed their character yet. Consequently, the harshest penalty a juvenile may receive for any crime is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Should the Court Extend Roper v. Simmons to Include Instances Where Life without the Possibility of Parole Is Imposed for a Non-Homicide Offense?
Relying on the Court’s reasoning in Roper, petitioners, Terrence Jamar Graham (“Graham”) and Joe Harris Sullivan (“Sullivan”), both argue that sentencing a juvenile defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense clearly violates the Eighth Amendment by imposing a grossly disproportionate sentence on a juvenile defendant. Graham and Sullivan argue that, although life in prison without the possibility of parole may be permissible for adult defendants who commit non-homicide offenses, juvenile defendants’ diminished culpability and lack of maturity necessitates a juvenile exemption. According to Graham and Sullivan, the justifications for imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on adults do not apply to juveniles, because juvenile defendants are (1) less culpable than adult defendants, (2) more likely to respond positively to efforts of rehabilitation, and (3) unlikely to be deterred by the threat of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, because they lack the ability to accurately assess risk. Finally, Graham and Sullivan argue that, when imposed on a juvenile — in particular, on a young teen — the harshness and finality of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is comparable to the death penalty, because both punishments are irreversible and represent society's complete abandonment of any effort at rehabilitation.
In contrast, respondent, the State of Florida (“Florida”), argues that the Court's “death is different” jurisprudence should counsel against extending Roper to include life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, because the Court has explicitly differentiated between the death penalty and prison sentences, regardless of their length. Additionally, Florida argues that the Court has never before considered the petitioner’s age when weighing the proportionality of a sentence and should not start here, because the Florida criminal justice system has already accounted for petitioners’ ages through its sentencing process.
Does Imposing Life Imprisonment without the Possibility of Parole for a Non-Homicide Offense Violate the Eighth Amendment when Applied to a Juvenile?
For the reasons stated above, Graham and Sullivan contend that imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile — in particular, if the juvenile is only a young teenager — raises an inference of gross disproportionality. Additionally, Graham argues that because life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the harshest penalty a court may impose upon a juvenile, it follows that the state should only impose it for the worst crimes, i.e. homicide.
In response, Florida argues that only two considerations are relevant to determining whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate: (1) the characteristics of the crime committed and (2) the sentence imposed. According to Florida, age is not a factor in determining proportionality. Florida also notes that the Court has previously upheld life sentences for crimes far less severe than those committed by Graham and Sullivan. Consequently, Florida argues that compared to previous sentences already upheld by the Court, the sentences imposed on Graham and Sullivan do not raise an inference of gross disproportionality.
Should the Court Undertake A Comparative Analysis, and If So, Would Other States and Countries Sentence a Juvenile to Life Imprisonment Without the Possibility of Parole for a Non-Homicide Offense?
Graham and Sullivan contend that Florida’s imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juveniles does not comport with the practices of other states and countries. Graham argues that only two states permit a judge to sentence a juvenile without any prior convictions to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for armed burglary, but, practically, only Florida imposes it. Graham and Sullivan argue that the fact that most state legislatures have not explicitly approved life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles and that those that have rarely impose such a punishment signifies a national consensus against imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile defendants. Additionally, Graham and Sullivan contend that, among countries, the United States stands alone in its imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juveniles and that the United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which expressly forbids imposing a life sentence on a juvenile.
Florida counters that a comparative analysis is not necessary in either case, as both Graham and Sullivan fail to meet the threshold requirement of gross disproportionality between the crime committed and the sentence imposed. Florida argues that, even if the Court were to undertake a comparative analysis, the majority of states allow the imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juveniles for a variety of crimes, reflecting a national consensus in support of allowing, rather than condemning, the sentence. Florida notes that the Court has traditionally not turned to international trends unless the same trend toward abolition also existed among states. Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of the Child binds neither the United States nor Florida, because the United States has not ratified it, and consequently, no international obligation dictates sentencing limitations for juveniles.
Does the Court Have Jurisdiction Over Sullivan’s Claims?
Florida contends that state procedural law bars Sullivan’s claims and consequently, the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction to review Sullivan v. Florida. Absent a specific exception, Florida law imposes a two-year limitation on filing a post-conviction motion in a non-capital case. In this case, the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction to review the Eighth Amendment claim if the state court had an adequate basis, independent of the merits of the federal claim, for denying the claim on procedural grounds. A state court’s judgment on procedural grounds is adequate if the procedure in question is (1) strictly or regularly followed and (2) applied evenhandedly to similar claims. A state court’s judgment is independent of the merits of the federal claim if the judgment is not based on a constitutional right.
Florida contends that the trial court appropriately denied relief under Rule 3.850(b) of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure and that Florida courts strictly and evenhandedly observe these limitations on jurisdiction. Florida also argues that the state court independently reached its decision, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized a constitutional right of juveniles not to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Consequently, the state court’s decision not to extend Roper is independent of the merits of Sullivan’s claim that such a constitutional right exists. Finally, Florida argues that Sullivan’s claims are untimely because he could have asserted them either at trial or on direct appeal under Thompson v. Oklahoma, an earlier case exempting juveniles under the age of sixteen from the death penalty.
In response, Sullivan argues that the Court does, indeed, have jurisdiction, because the Florida court’s disposal of the claim depended upon the court’s consideration of a federal constitutional claim. Because the state court based its denial of relief on its determination that no constitutional right exists to exempt juveniles from a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the court’s decision was not independent of the constitutional claim in question. Additionally, notwithstanding the two-year limitation, Rule 3.850 also allows a Florida court to correct an illegal sentence at any time. Consequently, Sullivan argues, the state court’s decision to deny relief in this case must rest upon a determination that the sentence does not violate the Constitution and, therefore, is not based on independent state law grounds.
In Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether juveniles that commit non-homicide offenses can receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In Sullivan, the Court will also determine whether it has jurisdiction to hear a claim that a state appellate court dismissed on independent state law grounds. The Court’s decision will affect juvenile offenders, judges, prosecutors, and other facets of the criminal justice system.
How Should the Criminal Justice System Treat Juvenile Offenders?
Petitioners, Terrance Jamar Graham (“Graham”) and Joe Harris Sullivan (“Sullivan”), and amici contend that because juveniles have distinct psychological and social characteristics, a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole does not serve any of the standard goals of punishment of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, or rehabilitation. Juveniles, as a class, have a lesser capacity for reasoned, logical judgment, are more vulnerable to negative external influences, and do not have fully-formed personal identities, thus rendering them more amenable to rehabilitation. First, Graham and Sullivan contend that a juvenile's lesser capacity for logical decision-making and susceptibility to negative peer pressures makes a juvenile offender less culpable. According to amici in support of Graham and Sullivan, punishing a less-culpable individual does not achieve the goal of retribution. Similarly, Graham, Sullivan, and amici argue that the impulsive nature of juveniles means they are less likely to consider the consequences of their actions and, thus, are less deterred by the threat of a lengthy prison sentence. Finally, amici contend that the characteristics of youth are often transitory and that juveniles are often very receptive to rehabilitation. Graham, Sullivan, and amici argue that sentencing an offender to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole denies an offender any chance of becoming rehabilitated.
Respondent in both cases, the State of Florida (“Florida”), and amici counter that the Court should not adopt a categorical ban on sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The National District Attorneys Association notes that the Court has never categorically exempted a class of offenders from a particular punishment other than the death penalty. Amici in support of Florida argue that states in which juveniles may face a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole have consciously adopted such measures as part of a considered legislative response to the growing problem of juvenile crime. Florida and amici contend that every state has a separate juvenile justice system designed and approved by the legislature, the use of which reflects society's concerns about the special characteristics and needs of juvenile offenders.
Amici in support of Florida also contend that, in some cases, a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is proportionate to the crime committed. These amici argue that Graham and Sullivan's offenses were sufficiently violent and heinous to warrant such a harsh sentence. Amici argue that these sentences protect innocent children, the most frequent victims of juvenile crime, and give other crime victims a feeling of finality.
How Should National and International Opinions Affect the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision?
Graham, Sullivan, and their supporters argue that there is a consensus among states and among nations of the world that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an inappropriate sentence for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.
Both Graham and Sullivan contend that only a handful of states even allow juveniles to receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the offenses they committed. Furthermore, according to amici in support of Graham and Sullivan, only thirteen nations legally allow a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles, and the United States is the only nation to impose the sentence to a significant degree. argues that sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates clearly established international law, including several human rights treaties signed by the United States.Amnesty International contends that other nations ban the sentence for juveniles due to the unstable, developing psychological characteristics of juveniles.
In response, Florida and its supporters contend that there is no national consensus against sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. According to the State of Louisiana, et al., thirty-eight states allow the imposition a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile offenders for violent non-homicide offenses. Seven more states allow the sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide. Florida argues that international law and opinion should not affect the Court's decision in these cases. Amici contend that there is no clearly established international law prohibiting the imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile offenders. Also, sixteen members of the United States House of Representatives ("Sixteen Members") argue that the United States either did not ratify or opted out of the provisions of the treaties cited by the amici in support of Graham and Sullivan. Finally, the Sixteen Members argue that considering international opinion on matters of law violates the American principles of independence and self-determination.
In Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether a state may constitutionally sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense. Petitioners, Terrance Jamar Graham and Joe Harris Sullivan, argue that such a sentence, when applied to a juvenile, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Respondent in both cases, the State of Florida, counters that a life sentence is not disproportionate when imposed for a violent crime committed by a juvenile. The Court’s decision will clarify the type of sentence that is constitutionally appropriate to impose on a juvenile defendant for a non-homicide offense.
· Annotated U.S. Constitution: Eighth Amendment: Cruel and Unusual Punishments
· Wex: Juvenile Justice
· New York Times: Defining “'Cruel and Unusual”' When the Offender Is 13 (Feb. 2, 2009)