Supreme Court May Consider Case of Teen "Lifer" Joe Sullivan

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 20, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An earlier post touched on the issue of whether the criminal justice system properly sentences juvenile offenders who commit serious offenses as "lifers" (i.e. offenders sentenced to life without possibility of parole). CNN today put out a related story about 33-year-old Joe Sullivan, a convicted burglar and rapist, who hopes that that Supreme Court will take up that very issue in his case.

Sullivan committed his offenses back in 1989 when he was only 13 years old, and he now is challenging it by arguing that his sentence was "cruel and unusual punishment for someone who was barely a teenager at the time of his crime." Sullivan's case might be a tough one for the Court to pass up because, aside from the fact that he was so young when he committed the offenses, there is also the added fact that no one was killed in the crimes. This is, of course, not to say that the offense was not heinous, because it certainly was, considering he was found guilty of the burglary and rape of a 72-year-old woman. Nevertheless, it is the next-to-worst possible sentence levied for a crime that did not involve a homicide.

The Supreme Court has only touched on juvenile sentencing in the context of the death penalty, finding the ultimate sentence unconstitutional if applied to those under the age of 18. However, the CNN piece also pointed out that the Court avoided taking another teen's case last year when it:

"...refused to hear the case of a South Carolina boy who was 12 when he murdered his grandparents and was given a 30-year sentence, the maximum allowed under state law. Tried as an adult, Christopher Pittman's lawyers had argued the sentence was excessive, and that heavy doses of antidepressants the boy was taking at the time sent his mind spinning out off control."

However, Sullivan's case takes the situation a bit further, with a life sentence, and no underlying homicide conviction. Still, the Court could very well take a pass on the entire subject, considering how few juveniles are now being sentenced as "lifers" for crimes not involving a homicide::

"The Justice Department reports no 13-year-old has been given life without parole for crime that wasn't a homicide in a decade. And while about a thousand people every year under 15 are arrested for rape, none have been given life without parole since Sullivan."

The Supreme Court will soon be deciding on whether it will take up Joe Sullivan's case, so stay tuned for an update.

Copied to clipboard