The recent sentencing by Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx of three Riviera Beach juveniles – Jakaris Taylor, now 18; Tommy Poindexter, 20, and Nathan Taylor, 18, to life in prison without the possibility of parole, will likely come under increasing scrutiny as Nov. 9, 2009; the date the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments in Sullivan v. Florida/ Graham v. Florida, draws near. The justices will determine if the Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment” has been violated in the case of juveniles sentenced to life in prison with-out parole for non-homicide crimes they committed before the age of 18.
The Dunbar rape case, presided over by Judge Marx, involved one of the more horrific crimes perpetrated by juveniles in Palm Beach County, Fla. history. A 35-year old mother and her 12-year-old son were beaten, sexually assaulted and robbed on June 18, 2007 in their apartment at Dunbar Village, a notorious, 226-unit public housing project in West Palm Beach, which had been over-taken by crime, crack dealers and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness.
Marx — who worked for Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office from 1985-1998 under district attorney Barry Krischer, and is well known for her harsh sentences — stated prior to imposing sentencing on the three: “I can only believe that none of you gentleman ever developed any moral code….And I have no confidence that if you are shipped off to the Department of Corrections you will find a moral compass there,” she added before promptly shipping them off to the Department of Corrections to begin serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
These three now join 77 other teens from Florida — out of a total of 109 juveniles world-wide — who were under 18 when they committed non-homicide crimes for which they will spend the rest of their lives be-hind bars. Incredibly, one state, Florida; accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all juvenile life sentences handed down worldwide, and is 19 times more likely to send juveniles to prison for life than comparable states in the U.S.
In Sullivan v. Florida, Joe Sullivan was 13 in 1989 when he and two other teens broke into an elderly Pensacola woman’s home robbing her of her jewelry and money. Later Sullivan, who was considered mentally challenged, returned by himself to the woman’s house where he beat and raped her. Subsequently, Sullivan was indicted and tried as an adult in a case that hinged on the flimsiest of evidence, and was rampant with racial overtones.
Sullivan was nevertheless found guilty and deemed by the judge to be “beyond help.” A year later he was sent to prison for life without parole, becoming the youngest convict in U.S. history to be sentenced to life without parole. Once in prison he was repeatedly sodomized.
Referring to Roper V. Simmons, a 2005 anti-death penalty ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court involving juveniles in which the death penalty was struck down as unconstitutional on Eighth Amendment grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment,” attorney Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (which has filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of Sullivan), stated, “Roper understood and explained why such a judgment cannot rationally be passed on children below a certain age. They are unfinished products, human works-in-progress.
“The essential feature of a death sentence or a life-with-out-parole sentence is that it imposes a terminal, unchangeable, once-and-for-all judgment upon the whole life of a human being and declares that a hum-an being is forever unfit to be a part of civil society,” Steven-son pointed out, alluding to the 2005 ruling in which the justices concurred that juveniles simply lack the “psychological maturity” to understand the full magnitude of their crimes. “Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile” might not be a valid indicator of an “irretrievably depraved character,” the court wrote at the time.
“Their [teens] potential for growth and change is enormous,” said Stevenson. “Almost all of them will outgrow criminal behavior, and it is practically impossible to detect the few who will not. To date, they are the products of an environment over which they had no real control — passengers through narrow pathways in a world they never made.”
By contrast, Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar who is arguing the case for the state of Florida contends that it is the state’s prerogative to sentence juvenile offenders, whose crimes warrant it, to harsh punishment irrespective of age. “There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery,” he wrote in court briefs.
Similarly, Charles D. Stimson — a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation which has been closely aligned with former VP Dick Cheney — is helping Florida’s Solicitor General prepare his case. It is Stimson’s belief that “some acts are so heinous and show such a callous disregard for human life even if their actions don’t result in death” that life in prison without the possibility of parole is appropriate.
That position has been taken up by other right-wing conservative groups including Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Cato Institute, which filed briefs with the high court stating, “The United States Congress and the overwhelming majority of states have adopted laws permitting juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. These laws reflect the will of the people and were enacted after due consideration of the nature of, and threats posed by, juvenile criminal activity in modern America, as well as the possibilities for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
“For this reason, given their steadfast commitment to the democratic process, the rule of law, and national sovereignty, [we urge] this Court…not to consider the non-binding provisions of international human rights treaties” or other international decrees “regarding the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole.”
Critics lambaste this ration-ale as another arrogant snub of national and international human rights organizations which have been critical of Florida’s draconian criminal justice policies for years, arguing that African American juveniles are not only disproportionately bearing the brunt of kids sentenced to life without parole, but are disproportionately represented at every other level of the criminal justice system as well. Clearly, redress is warranted. Otherwise, how can one justify, and continue this barbaric treatment, say critics, when there are so many blatantly biased cases in which the racial demo-graphics are obviously skewed, and it’s not just in Florida.
According to the Sentencing Project, in 22 states, over half of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole were African American. In three other states, Maryland, Alabama and Virginia that percentage goes up to over 80 percent.
Here in Florida, six counties with large Black populations: Hillsborough, Orange, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade comprise 43 of the 77 juveniles serving life sentences without parole. Coincidental?+ Not by a long shot, critics assert.