Court to review life sentences for young offenders

WASHINGTON (AP) — Though it may be decades, Joe Harris Sullivan is waiting to die in prison for a crime he committed at age 13, one of thousands of children who have been sentenced to life terms without parole in the United States.

The Supreme Court on Monday announced that it will decide whether sentencing juveniles to spend the rest of their lives in prison without hope of ever being released can be considered a cruel and unusual punishment.

The justices are taking up two cases from Florida challenging life sentences for teenagers. In the first case, a judge determined that 17-year-old Terrance Graham took part in an armed home-invasion robbery while he was on probation for a violent crime.

Sullivan, now 33 and in prison at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Fla., was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for the rape of Lena Bruner in 1989. Bruner never saw her attacker, but she testified at trial that Sullivan’s voice sounded like that of her attacker. Two boys also testified against Sullivan, a police officer said she saw Sullivan run from Bruner’s house, and his handprint was found on a plaque on Bruner’s bed.

Sullivan had been found guilty of 17 criminal offenses, including several serious felonies, in the two previous years, officials said. The state destroyed the case’s DNA evidence in 1993.

Bryan A. Stevenson, Sullivan’s lawyer, said Sullivan was one of only two 13-year-old children sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime in the United States and only one of eight with that sentence for any crime in prison.

Times have changed people’s minds about sentencing juveniles, Stevenson said.

The Supreme Court in 2005 outlawed the death penalty for juvenile criminals in the case Roper v. Simmons, declaring there was a national consensus that such executions were unconstitutionally cruel and ending a practice that had brought international condemnation.

A 2008 report from Human Rights Watch said that there are 2,484 youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States, with Florida, California, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania having the highest number. The United States is the only country in the world that still sentences juveniles to life in prison without possibility of parole, Stevenson and other advocates said.

“I don’t think there has been a lot of awareness about the sentences some of these kids have received, and so I do think it presents a serious question,” Stevenson said.

Bill McCollum, Florida’s attorney general, filed court papers in Sullivan’s and Graham’s cases.

The Supreme Court “has recognized that a state is permitted to make ‘a societal decision that when a person who has previously committed a felony commits yet another felony, he should be subjected to the admittedly serious penalty of incarceration for life, subject only to the state’s judgment as to whether to grant him parole,'” McCollum said.

A Florida appeals court upheld the sentences of Sullivan and Graham.

This is not the first time this court has been confronted with the question of juveniles spending their lives in prison. Last year, the justices declined to consider an appeal of a 30-year prison sentence for a teen who was 12 when he killed his grandparents in their South Carolina home.

The cases will not be heard until the fall term. The Supreme Court is expected to have a new justice by October following the retirement of David Souter.

The cases are Sullivan v. Florida, 08-7621, and Graham v. Florida, 08-7412.

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Justices to hear appeals of lifers sentenced as teens

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Supreme Court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment for young criminal offenders to be sentenced to life in prison with parole.


Joe Sullivan, now 33, was convicted of burglary and rape when he was 13. He is serving life without parole.

The justices agreed without comment Monday to accept appeals from two Florida inmates convicted as teenagers of criminal offenses. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.

One of the men is Joe Sullivan, 33, serving a life term without the possibility of parole in a Florida prison while confined to a wheelchair. He was sentenced for a rape committed when he was 13.

The man’s lawyers say he is one of only two people his age in the world who was tried as an adult and sentenced to “die in prison” for a non-homicide.

The justices also accepted a case dealing with Terrance Graham, who was 17 when he took part in a violent home-invasion robbery while on parole for another felony.

Outside a death-penalty context, the high court has offered little recent guidance on how to treat the youngest of underage criminal defendants. The appellate record for rapists younger than 15 is almost nonexistent, legal experts say.

Child legal advocates say many states lack adequate resources to handle young inmates given long sentences, including a lack of proper jailhouse counseling. Few studies have been conducted on the psychological effects of young defendants facing life in prison at such a young age, said the Equal Justice Institute, which is representing Sullivan’s high court case.

“We have created a forgotten population with a lot of needs,” said Bryan Stevenson, Sullivan’s lawyer.

The crime happened in 1989, when, Sullivan admitted, he and two friends ransacked a home on Seabrook Street in West Pensacola. But he denied the prosecutor’s claim that he returned with a knife and sexually assaulted the 72-year-old female homeowner. An older co-defendant claimed that Sullivan was the rapist.

After a daylong trial, Escambia County Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life without parole.

“I am going to try to send him away for as long as I can. He is beyond help,” the judge said. “The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan.”

Sullivan, who had a lengthy juvenile record, continues to deny that he committed the attack.

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Change the juvenile lifer law

May 3, 2009

Offer at least the hope of a second chance for young offenders


Michigan’s notorious juvenile lifer law has drawn fire from human rights groups nationwide, and rightly so. The law has forced judges to give kids as young as 14 — an age when they cannot legally drive or buy a pack of cigarettes — the maximum adult penalty, with no chance of parole.

This law must change, and a package of bills sponsored by state Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, and others in the state Senate and House offers the best hope yet of doing that. A public hearing is set before the House Judiciary Committee on May 6.

These bills are not soft on crime. They would not, by themselves, release a single juvenile lifer. They would only give them a chance at parole after they have served 10 years, and some have already served decades.

The United States, with more than 2,000 juvenile lifers, is alone in handing down mandatory life sentences to children, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly 350 Michigan inmates are serving such sentences for first-degree murder — the third-highest number among states. Many were convicted for aiding and abetting the crime, and some received harsher sentences than the actual killers got. For a third, the crime was their first offense. Two-thirds of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African American.

Expensive injustice

Michigan’s juvenile lifer laws were enacted during the 1980s, when many draconian measures, including three-strike laws, were approved around the country. For years, bills to repeal the laws stalled in committee. But last year, the Democratic-controlled House approved them with some bipartisan support, giving backers real hope for this legislative session.

Fueling such hopes is a general rethinking of Michigan’s criminal justice and corrections policies. Michigan faces a $1.6-billion deficit next year, so politicians, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, have moved to right-size Michigan prisons. Costing $2 billion a year, the Michigan Department of Corrections eats up 20% of the state’s general fund — more than the state spends on higher education.

But saving money is not the only issue; there are moral, legal and constitutional problems with Michigan’s juvenile lifer law. It contradicts science, legal tradition, public opinion and plain common sense.

Brain-imaging research shows — big surprise — that teenagers are more impulsive and unstable than adults, even without the abuse and neglect that many young offenders have faced. “Sentencing a child to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment and should be considered unconstitutional,” Brater told me, after leading the fight against Michigan’s juvenile lifer law for the last six years. “Given the Supreme Court’s ruling on the death penalty for minors, the logical legal inference is that the principle should apply to life without parole as well.”

The case of Henry Hill Jr.

Henry Hill Jr., MDOC No. 169371, grew up in Saginaw and was too young to buy a beer when he was arrested for murder. Like many juvenile lifers, Hill took part in the crime but did not do the killing. Under Michigan law, aiding and abetting a first-degree murder carries the same penalty, and prosecutors argued that Hill planned the killing with his cousin, Larnell Johnson, who was then 18.

Johnson shot Anthony Thomas repeatedly during a fight at Wickes Park in the summer of 1980 (Johnson is also doing mandatory life). But witnesses, including an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, said Hill was running from the scene when Johnson killed Thomas. Before Hill left, he fired six shots with a handgun, up into the air, trying to scare people away. None of Hill’s bullets matched those found in the victim’s body.

Hill’s maturity level was far less than even his age would suggest. In a court-ordered evaluation, a psychologist called the 16-year-old mentally deficient, insecure and unable to tell right from wrong. The report states that Hill, who dropped out in the 11th grade, had the education level of a third-grader and the mental maturity of a 9-year-old. In no way should Hill have been judged by adult standards.

“I was dumb as a box of rocks,” Hill, now 45, told me at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. “I couldn’t even read. I was 20 before I really realized the significance of what I had done.”

Hill has served nearly 30 years in prison — two-thirds of his life. The 16-year-old who had been labeled mentally deficient is now bright, articulate and well read. He earned a GED in prison and took college courses. He is writing a book about his life.

A psychological evaluation completed in February by the Department of Corrections called Hill cooperative, polite, articulate and straightforward. It concluded that his thinking was logical, flexible and goal-oriented.

Hill applied for a commutation in September and, after getting interviewed by the Parole Board last month, hopes for freedom.

Although he didn’t kill Thomas, Hill knows he played a part and deserved to be punished. “We were all friends at one time. It was a tragedy — just senseless. He lost his life and we could have lost ours.”

Locked out of a second chance

But when is enough, enough? Keeping him locked up serves neither justice nor the taxpayer. At the very least, he and other juvenile lifers deserve a chance at freedom.

I hope Hill gets his commutation, but the governor reserves such actions for special cases only. Hundreds more like Hill will never get the same opportunity. Changing state law to make juvenile lifers eligible for parole is the best way to correct this unjust and unforgiving system.

JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at or 313-222-6585.

Additional Facts
Speak out

A public hearing on second chance bills to repeal Michigan’s juvenile lifer law — HB 4518, 4594, 4595 and 4596 — will take place on Wednesday, May 6, at 10:30 a.m. before the House Judiciary Committee at 521 House Office Building in Lansing. To voice an opinion, you can also contact your state representative or senator or Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Contact information for state representatives can be found at For state senators, go to Granholm can be contacted at, or by calling 517-373-3400, or writing her at P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, MI 48909.

Corresponding bills in the state Senate — SB 173, 174, 175 and 176 — are before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland. Kuipers can be contacted at; by phone at 517-373-6920, or by mail at P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, MI 48909.

To read “Second Chances” profiles of juvenile lifers by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, go to

California's juvenile injustice system,0,786520.story

From the Los Angeles Times


The state sentences children as young as 14 to life without parole. A state Senate bill would bring some sanity to the situation.

April 30, 2009

Children, even really bad ones, are different from adults. That basic truth is the foundation of our juvenile justice system, which seeks to protect society from violent youth while recognizing that they haven’t yet developed an adult’s brainpower, resistance to peer pressure, judgment and thus moral capacity. It’s the underpinning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Roper vs. Simmons, which banned execution of inmates for crimes they committed as children.

That doesn’t stop California from locking up children as young as 14 for life without even the most remote possibility of parole. There are more than 200 such offenders living out their lives in prison here, with no chance — despite any maturing, any repentance, any burgeoning awareness of the wrongness of their actions — of asking for parole, even decades into adulthood. That’s costly, cruel and foolish.

Knowing they will live and die in prison, people who acted in the rashness of youth have no hope of returning to society, and therefore no reason to learn, or grow, or mature, or reform. But surely their example will dissuade other youth from crime? Nonsense. Kids who can’t imagine next year can’t imagine life in prison and can’t be expected to make decisions based on something as obscure to them as parole.

Consider, as well, cases such as Antonio Nunez of South Los Angeles, who at 14 was in a car with two adults when someone in the vehicle fired at police. No one was injured, but the boy was sentenced to life in prison forever. It’s not an unusual story in this city, where adult gang members recruit teens to help them out and take the fall. Dickens would have a field day.

SB 399, by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), would give a few of California’s youth imprisoned without parole some very narrow hope of a future. It would permit a judge, at least a decade after the sentencing, to consider substituting a sentence of 25 years to life. The inmate would still have to serve a quarter of a century before even being eligible to ask for parole.

Even this modest, sane and humane reform could fail in Sacramento on the specious assertion that the state would be unable to bear the cost of an occasional additional parole hearing; we will instead continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a lifetime of imprisonment because of the actions of a teenager. No wonder California can’t manage a prison system or balance a budget.

Of all the nations of the world, only the United States permits life without parole for children. Even here, a growing number of states have banned the practice. California should too, but in the meantime, Yee’s bill is a sane start.

Teens locked up for life without a second chance

  • At least 73 inmates serve life without parole for offenses committed at 13 and 14
  • Proponents of tough sentencing laws say public safety is top priority
  • Only 19 states punish minors under 14 with sentences of life without parole
  • “They took away all hope for the future,” says Quantel Lotts, now 23

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
(CNN) — It began as horseplay, with two teenage stepbrothers chasing each other with blow guns and darts. But it soon escalated when one of the boys grabbed a knife.

The older teen, Michael Barton, 17, was dead by the time he reached the hospital, stabbed twice.The younger boy, Quantel Lotts, 14, would eventually become one of Missouri’s youngest lifers.

Lotts was sentenced in Missouri’s St. Francois County Circuit Court in 2002 to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder in his stepbrother’s stabbing death.

It made no difference that at the time of the deadly scuffle, Lotts was barely old enough to watch PG-13 movie and too young to drive, vote or buy beer.

“They locked me up and threw away the keys,” Lotts, now 23, said from prison. “They took away all hope for the future.”

His stepmother, the victim’s mother, has forgiven Lotts and is working with lawyers to gain his release.

Lotts is one of at least 73 U.S. inmates — most of them minorities — who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Alabama that defends indigent defendants and prisoners.

The 73 are just a fraction of the more than 2,000 offenders serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors under the age of 18.

Across the country, most juvenile offenders and many adults are given a second chance. Charles Manson, convicted in seven notorious murders committed when he was 27, will be eligible for his 12th parole hearing in 2012. He’s been denied parole 11 times. Even “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, who confessed to killing six people in the 1970s when he was in his 20s, has had four parole hearings, though he has said he doesn’t deserve parole and doesn’t want it.

But Quantel Lotts has no hope for a parole hearing. At least not yet. See which states have sentenced minors to life without parole »

Lotts is part of a trend that has developed over the past two decades. Numerous studies have shown that In the 1970s and 1980s, minors were rarely given life sentences, let alone life without parole, experts said. By the early 1990s, according to the Department of Justice, an alarming spike in juvenile homicides spawned a nationwide crackdown, including a movement to try kids in adult courts.

“Criminal court doesn’t care they are kids,” said Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Once they are there, it’s just another case.”

Today, there are only a handful of states — including Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oregon — that prohibit sentencing minors to life without parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Proponents of the strict sentencing laws said public safety should be top priority. They argued that judges give certain criminals, regardless of their age, life sentences because the crimes are so abhorrent.

“There are some people who are so fundamentally dangerous that they can’t walk among us,” said Jennifer Jenkins, who co-founded the National Organization for Victims of Juvenile Lifers. The Illinois-based group has fought legislation in nine statesthat would remove sentences of life without parole.

Jenkins has experienced the devastation of losing family members to a teen killer. In 1990, her sister and her sister’s family, who were living in a wealthy suburb in Chicago, Illinois, were murdered by a teenager.

“Victims have the right not to be constantly revictimized,” she said.

“They will come back to my community and your community and repeat,” said Harriet Salerno, president of Crime Victims United of California, a group trying to block the passage of laws that would ease sentencing for juveniles.

She founded the victim’s group after her daughter, a pre-medical student, was murdered at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in the 1979. “Many of them have dysfunctional homes, and the crimes will escalate because there is no place to put them.”

Only 19 states punish children under 14 with life sentences without parole, according to a study conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Over the past three years, the advocacy group’s attorneys have appealed cases involving 13- and 14-year-old offenders in state and federal court. Attorneys argue that the sentences are “cruel and unusual punishment” given the tender years of the offenders. Read the center’s report

Last week, the state of Missouri dismissed Quantel Lotts’ case in St. Francois County Circuit Court. The Equal Justice Initiative will challenge the decision in the Missouri Court of Appeals. A separate petition, filed in 2007, is pending in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri.

Lotts remains in prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, and he is hopeful. He has new dreams of going to college and maybe even becoming a lawyer.

“My family motivates me,” he explained. “Because I want to be out there with them so I can never give up.”

He wishes he could start over, but not at the beginning. He grew up in a crack house with a mother who used and sold drugs. In Lotts’ case, court documents reveal that he was sexually abused as a child.

When child welfare officials took Lotts from his mother at the age of 8, they noted that he “smelled of urine and had badly decayed molars as well as numerous scars on his arms, legs and forehead.”

“Quantel had a lot of anger because of all he has been through,” said stepmother Tammy Lotts, 45, whose son Michael Barton was Lotts’ victim. Sentence ‘totally unfair’

At the time of the crime, Tammy Lotts said she left her children for several days with her husband to get high on crack cocaine.

“But I don’t believe that Quantel did it,” she added. “They took care of each other. They didn’t see each other as stepbrothers; they considered them brothers.”

Most young offenders serving life without parole were exposed to poverty, violence or drugs during childhood, the Equal Justice Initiative reported.

Some victims’ families say that’s exactly why the juveniles should stay locked up.

Salerno, of Crime Victims United of California, said that some juveniles can be rehabilitated but that some committed crimes so severe, resources shouldn’t be wasted on them.

Two cases in which juvenile offenders got life without parole didn’t even involve murder.

Antonio Nunez was 14 years old when he committed a crime that gave him life without parole. The crime was an armed kidnapping that occurred in 2001. He spent his childhood in a gang-ridden neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, California. He was shot in the stomach multiple times while riding his bike at age 13. See stories of other inmates who were sentenced to life in prison without parole »

In Florida, Joe Sullivan, who case will be heard soon by the U.S. Supreme Court, was sentenced to life without parole for 1989 rape of an elderly woman. He was 13 at the time of the crime and is mentally disabled.

In 2005, groups that opposed life sentences without parole for young people, began to gain traction after the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for crimes committed by 16 and 17 year olds in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons.

A year later, Colorado abolished life without parole for minors who commit crimes. At the federal level, Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Virginia, will introduce legislation this year to give youthful offenders the option of parole. In California, Democratic Sen. Leland Yee has proposed a law that grants young offenders a chance at parole after ten years.

“Children aren’t just little adults, and it’s starting to resonate with people,” said Ashley Nellis, an analyst at the Sentencing Project, a research organization tracking sentencing patterns. “There has been a general momentum of changing juvenile law in the last few years.”

Nearly a decade later, Lotts, now a grown man, still cries himself to sleep over the loss of his stepbrother. To ease the pain, he reads novels or listens to the tunes of R&B group Dru Hill.

One sleepless night in prison, Lotts found himself reading the book “Lightning” by Dean Koontz. The novel, about time travel, has become one of his favorites. He often thinks about what it would be like to turn back time.

“This would have never happened,” he said. “My brother would be here today.”

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