Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LWOP: it's not just for adults!

From the New York Times today, we have this story about a cert petition currently pending before the US Supreme Court. The defendant, Joe Sullivan, was a boy of 13 when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a rape conviction. His attorneys are now asking the court to consider whether that sentence for a juvenile constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

If you've read my blog at all, you probably can guess that I think it is wrong to sentence a child to LWOP. My regular readers should know by now that I don't think any 13 year-old should ever be tried as an adult, so I certainly don't think they should be subjected to such unalterable punishments. A child who commits a horrible crime should be punished, yes, but not to the degree we would punish an adult. The end goal of punishment for a child should be rehabilitation. An LWOP sentence is as far removed from rehabilitation as you can get. No matter how much we pretend otherwise, a 13 year-old who commits rape is still a child. A child can mimic adult acts, but a child can't actually commit an adult act because no child has an adult's brain development, decision-making skills, and impulse control.

Because the 13 year-old child isn't close to done developing, I think it's abhorrent to treat that child as a hopeless cause, which is what we do when we sentence him to LWOP. I don't understand how anyone can so willingly say to a child, "You will never see the light of day again." How can someone who hasn't even reached high school not deserve even a chance to prove he's been rehabilitated? I refuse to be that pessimistic about my fellow humans, especially about kids who probably haven't had much good guidance through childhood if they're out committing crimes by the age of 13.

What is most striking to me about this case is how little is really required of the state before they're allowed to lock someone up and throw away the key forever. This boy's trial took one day. His attorney waived opening and gave a closing that was only 3 transcript pages long. (The attorney has since been suspended and declared ineligible to practice law in Florida.) The victim couldn't identify her attacker's face, but she thought Joe's voice "sounded similar" to her attacker's. The boy's attorneys think one of his older companions, who testified against Joe, is the true rapist. There was biological evidence from the 1989 rape, but DNA testing wasn't available at the time of Joe's trial. By the time his attorneys sought testing, the state said the evidence had been destroyed in 1993.

So Joe got a one day trial. Then he got an appeal, I'm sure. But I'm also fairly sure there wasn't much chance of reversal there. An appeal is really only as good as the trial, so if Joe's attorney didn't do much of an opening or closing, I'd guess he didn't do much else during that one day. The appellate attorney can't do much if the trial attorney doesn't lay any groundwork by filing pre-trial motions and making objections at trial.

But then he should still get a chance to ask for a new trial because he did not receive effective assistance of counsel. Because surely we wouldn't casually throw away a 13 year-old boy if his 6th Amendment right wasn't honored, right? But anyone who has handled post-conviction ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims knows it's pretty difficult to convince a court a defendant's trial attorney was so bad he should get a new trial. Frankly, I think IAC review is a joke. Maybe I'm letting my cynical side show, but I doubt Joe got much real consideration for any 6th Amendment claim he tried to present in court.

Instead, we allow the result of one day of testimony to stand as the sole reason for tossing this kid behind bars for the rest of his life with no possibility of redemption. I think few things in life can really be that black and white. Many, if not most, crimes are of this nature, where even after a trial, there are lingering questions and completely credible suspects other than the convicted defendant. And most defendants really aren't hopelessly evil people with no redeeming qualities.

Maybe Joe Sullivan really did get a fair trial and thorough appellate review. And maybe he really is guilty. But maybe not. And maybe there really is no hope that he could ever be a productive member of society who could earn a chance to live on the outside. But probably not. Either way, it is unacceptable to me that we would allow this young man (who is still younger than me but has spent 20 years in prison) to rot behind bars without any hope of a different future. It certainly shouldn't be so easy to condemn him that totally for something that happened when he was 13.

1 comment:

mikeb302000 said...

Thanks for writing about this awful story. I missed it the other day, but I'm so glad to read the clear and common-sense ideas you put forth. What is their problem, these law-and-order, everybody-is-responsible-for-their-actions guys?

I pray that Obama can take the country in another direction. Using torture and treating children like this, is not what America is supposed to be all about.

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