Monday, May 4, 2009

Supreme Court to consider life in prison for juveniles

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that it would decide the constitutionality of giving juveniles who commit crimes other than murder a sentence of life in prison without the chance of release.

The nation's high court agreed to hear two Florida cases, one involving a 13-year-old convicted of raping an elderly woman and the other involving a 17-year-old who took part in an armed home-invasion robbery while on probation for an earlier violent crime.

Their lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, for juveniles whose crimes did not involve murder violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court in 2005 abolished the death penalty for juveniles.

The justices will consider in the two cases whether to extend that ruling to sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.

The justices are expected to hear and then decide the two cases during their upcoming term that begins in October.

In one case, Joe Sullivan, now 33, was convicted of burglary and rape of a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola, Florida, a crime he committed in 1989 at age 13.

According to his supporters, Sullivan is only one of two people in the United States to be serving a life sentence without possible parole for a crime other than murder committed at age 13. The other inmate, also in Florida, was convicted for a 1990 robbery and attempted murder.

Sullivan's attorneys argued that the extremely rare imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a 13-year-old for a crime other than murder reflected "a national consensus on the reduced criminal culpability of children."

The other case involved Terrance Graham, who was 17 when he was arrested for a 2004 home-invasion robbery. He had pleaded guilty the previous year to burglary and attempted armed robbery and was on probation.

(Editing by Deborah Charles and Sandra Maler)

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