Fla. Juvenile Crime Law Takes the Stand; the Supreme Court Is Hearing Two Cases of Youth Sentenced to Life

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Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

WASHINGTON - Florida's tough stance against juvenile criminals was debated on a national stage Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments by lawyers for two North Florida inmates challenging their life-without-parole prison sentences in non-homicides.

In two of the most closely watched cases of the term, the justices drew familiar ideological lines in their questions and comments about Terrance Jamar Graham, now 22, of Jacksonville and Joe Sullivan, now 34, of Pensacola. Their appeals have drawn international attention since the Supreme Court agreed in May to decide whether their sentences violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Graham was 16 when he committed an armed burglary and 17 when he was sentenced to life for violating his probation by committing an armed home invasion robbery. Sullivan was 13 when he got life for raping an elderly woman 20 years ago.

Their lawyers hope to build on the Supreme Court's narrow 2005 decision striking down the death penalty for juveniles. They repeatedly cited that 5-4 opinion, which held that juveniles are less responsible for their actions than adults based on sociological and scientific research.

"A juvenile's different than an adult. We know over time he will change," argued Graham's attorney, Bryan Gowdy. "... Terrance Graham at age 47 will not be the person he was at 17."

He said even parole eligibility after 40 or 50 years would give some hope to incarcerated juveniles.

But Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar argued in both cases Monday that sentencing decisions are best left to individual states to decide. He asked the justices to consider the dramatic rise in violent juvenile crime that led to stiffer sanctions in the 1990s.

"What they're asking ... goes against national consensus and national trends," Makar contended. In both cases, he said, the level of violence was "off the scale."

A QUESTION OF RETRIBUTION

Makar also asked that Sullivan's appeal be denied on procedural grounds because it could have been raised years ago. But Sullivan's attorney, Bryan Stevenson, said the 2005 decision raised new issues for Sullivan.

Stevenson noted there are 111 people serving life prison sentences in the United States for non-homicide crimes committed when they were juveniles, 77 of which are in Florida. Only two, both in Florida, were 13 when they committed their crimes.

"It is unquestionably unusual," Stevenson said. "But, we also contend, to say to any child at 13 that you must die in prison is cruel."

Justice Samuel Alito recited a litany of crimes committed by juveniles that he said were so horrific he wouldn't have imagined them possible.

"There are some individuals short of their 18th birthday who deserve life in prison without parole," he said.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the inmates' arguments assume that the only goal of punishment is rehabilitation or deterrence. The state has an interest in retribution as well, he said.

Gowdy replied that to sentence a less culpable offender to the most severe punishment is too much retribution.

Several justices also questioned how to specify an age at which life without parole is not an option. …