Stevenson persuades the Supreme Court to examine life sentences for juveniles

On May 4, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether a 13-year-old convicted of rape must spend the rest of his life in prison. Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), filed a petition in December in Sullivan v. Florida asking the Court to determine whether Sullivan’s sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Stevenson told the Washington Post that Sullivan’s case was “freakishly rare.” “Nationwide, Joe Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-old children who received life-without-parole sentences for crimes in which the victims did not die,” EJI’s petition stated. “Both of these sentences were imposed in Florida, making Florida the only state to have sentenced a 13-year-old to die in prison for a non-homicide.”

Sullivan, now 33 years old, was accused by an older boy of committing a sexual battery when they broke into a home together. The older boy received a short sentence in juvenile detention, but Sullivan was tried as an adult, convicted of sexual battery, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. According to EJI, the United States is the only country in the world in which children as young as 13 years old are sentenced to life without parole.

The Court also granted review in Graham v. Florida, to be argued separately, in which a 17-year-old was sentenced to life without parole for a series of home invasions.

In 2005, the Court decided that those younger than 18 are not eligible for the death penalty, and last year, in a case involving the rape of a child, the Court decided that capital punishment was not warranted for crimes in which the victim was not killed.

In recent months, EJI has filed challenges in Mississippi, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Delaware in cases where children have been sentenced to life without parole.