Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments, in Sullivan v. Florida, about whether sentencing a 13-year-old boy to prison without the possibility of parole violates the cruel-and–unusual-punishment clause of the Constitution. Joe Harris Sullivan is one of two teenagers that young currently doing life without parole for a nonhomicide offense in the United States. His lawyers are hoping that the court will extend its 2005 bar on executing criminals who committed crimes as juveniles to Sullivan's sentence.
Whatever the court decides, its ruling will be based on the premise
that Sullivan received a fair trial. The adequacy of that proceeding
isn't before the justices now. But a brief review of the trial record
reveals a process so pathetic that it raises questions about whether
Sullivan committed the crime in the first place. It also seems that the
trial judge may not have intended to sentence Sullivan to life without
parole. In the end, that judge, along with the prosecutor and defense
lawyer, failed Sullivan so deeply that we have to wonder whether his
sentence reflects a deep and basic failure of ordinary criminal justice.
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