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Friday, August 28, 2009

Previewing the Coming Term (Part Eight): Sullivan v. Florida

[This is the eighth in a series of posts by CrimProf’s graduate fellow, Peter Stockburger (University of San Diego Class of 2009), previewing the criminal law and procedure cases scheduled for argument in the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. Peter excerpts and paraphrases the briefs of the parties to provide an overview of the cases and the advocates’ arguments. Links to the briefs of the parties appear at the end of the summary.]


Docket No.: 08-7621
Case: Sullivan v. Florida
Oral Argument Date: November 9, 2009

Issue:  Whether the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a thirteen-year-old for a non-homicide violates the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. 

Factual and Procedural History:  Petitioner, Joe Sullivan, was arrested in 1989 at the age of thirteen and was indicted as an adult for sexual battery in violation of Florida law.  After a one-day trial, petitioner was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility for parole. 

On appeal, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction without opinion.  The Florida Supreme Court dismissed review without opinion.  After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons (2005), petitioner filed a motion for post-conviction relief, contending Roper rendered his life-without-parole sentence unconstitutional.  In 2007, the trial court dismissed the motion with prejudice, concluding petitioner’s invocation of Roper is “meritless,” citing Florida jurisprudence declining to extend Roper.

The Florida First District Court of Appeal summarily affirmed without opinion, denying rehearing and certification to the Florida Supreme Court.  On May 4, 2009, a petition for certiorari was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Oral argument is scheduled for November 9, 2009.

Summary of Petitioner’s Argument:  According to petitioner, the constitutional logic of Roper controls this case and “requires the invalidation of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole imposed on a 13-year-old child.”  According to petitioner, only nine individuals in the entire country are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed at age thirteen.  Consequently, these sentences are not the result of “legislative decisions that life in prison without parole is appropriate for children in this age range but rather results from the adventitious overlay of two legislative developments – legislation changing the boundaries of exclusive juvenile-court jurisdiction so as to make more children subject to adult-court prosecution; and legislation increasing the number of adult crimes punishable by life imprisonment without parole.”

According to petitioner, because the total national accumulation of life-without-parole sentences for 13-year-olds has been only nine, and in light of Roper, there has been a “radical repudiation of life without parole for children of this age [13].”  Consequently, petitioner requests the lower courts sentencing be reversed and remanded.

Summary of Respondent’s Argument:  No merits brief has yet been filed.


Brief for Petitioner Joe Harris Sullivan 

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