Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham Teen Sentence Cases to be Heard by Supreme Court

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 04, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Following up on the topic of tough life sentences imposed on youths, it looks like the Supreme Court may soon give a final answer on the question of whether sentences of life without possibility of parole (LWOP) imposed on teen offenders violate the Constitution.

The Court today announced that it would take up the cases of Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham, both of whom are from Florida. As reported by CNN, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for a rape committed when he was 13 years old. Terrance Graham, on the other hand, received the same LWOP sentence for a "violent home-invasion robbery while on parole for another felony" committed when he was 17 years old.

This may be particularly timely, considering that a California appellate court ruled last week that an LWOP sentence imposed on then-13-year-old Antonio de Jesus Nunez for a kidnapping offense (with no injuries involved) violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, that court stated the sentence was "so freakishly rare as to constitute arbitrary and capricious punishment violating the Eighth Amendment." However, the California court also indicated that its decision was not an easy one, and that it is usually a job for legislators and prosecutors to draw up penalties and pursue them, respectively.

The Court could possibly distinguish these two Florida cases from each other. For example, the Court may look at a sentence imposed on a 13-year-old offender differently than one imposed on a 17-year-old repeat offender. On the other hand, it may simply uphold or reject the sentences based on a given rationale. However, one way or the other, the question of irredeemable youth is to be addressed in the Court's coming term.

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