Joe Sullivan is a 33-year-old black man who has spent the last 20 years in a Florida prison. He was convicted of raping a 72-year-old white woman after burglarizing her home in 1989. This means that when Sullivan was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, he was just 13 years old.
Now Sullivan is trying to have his case heard by the Supreme Court, a development in American judicial politics that could draw attention away from capital cases and place it on less severe but more common punishments, including life imprisonment.
In the past few years, the Supreme Court has clarified the circumstances wherein the death penalty is acceptable, but very little attention has been paid to the basis for many life imprisonments such as Sullivan's. While the Supreme Court doesn't generally retroactively apply its rulings to cases of bygone years, Sullivan's situation could be the exception the rule.
Sullivan's case lasted only one day and doesn't seem to have involved any direct evidence linking him to the rape of which he was accused. He admitted to burglarizing the house with two older boys but maintained that his involvement had ended there. DNA evidence was available, but for unknown reasons, it was not used in his trial.
The evidence was destroyed by the state of Florida in 1993 for unknown reasons. Sullivan was represented by an attorney who declined to deliver an opening statement and gave only a three-page closing argument.
In spite of these facts, Sullivan is not pressing for his immediate release, but only for the right to parole hearings. In other words, he is not decrying his imprisonment, only his inability to prove his reform and legally end his time behind bars.
While it is possible that Sullivan could be reintegrated into society, it is unlikely that a 13 year old who spent the better part of his life behind bars would flourish with freedom.
What Sullivan represents, however, is another facet of the judicial system that can be fixed now that more light has been shed on it. The judicial system shares an unfortunate similarity to a computer program: errors can rarely be uncovered before the program is running and mistakes are made. But once that mistake is realized, it must be corrected, or the basis of our justice system is itself unjust.
(source : The Spectrum Student Periodical)