The kids are not alright

Minnesota minors who kill can go to jail for life with no chance of getting out.
Published: 10/14/2009

Lamonte Martin was 17 years old when he and two of his companions killed Christopher Lynch on May 3, 2006.

Martin was charged with first-degree premeditated murder, which, under Minnesota law, means he was automatically charged as an adult. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

Last Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Martin’s sentence, saying it was not a violation of the federal or state constitution. Minnesota’s decision comes at a critical time for judicial consideration of juvenile sentences. On Nov. 9, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on whether sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicidal crimes is unconstitutional. To oversimplify things, the decision faced by the courts is whether life sentences meted out to offending minors violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments.” Minnesota’s state constitution, which was also considered in Martin’s case, however, bans “cruel or unusual punishment.”

Before jumping to any conclusions, consider how important some of the issues involved are. These kids have been convicted of committing horrible crimes. You don’t get life without parole for vandalizing the neighbor’s garage.

Some readers may remember Lynch’s murder. It was in 2006, when murder in north Minneapolis was becoming frighteningly frequent. Even with the body count rising daily, the Lynch killing was especially horrible.

According to the case, Lynch’s autopsy showed that he had been shot between 11 and 13 times. He had been with his cousin, a reputed gang member, when they were spotted by members of a rival gang and ran. Lynch stopped because he ran out of breath. Testimony indicated that Lynch was on his knees begging for his life when he was killed.

Nick Coleman’s Star Tribune column from May 14, 2006, recalled the scene. “They shot him everywhere — the face, the back, the butt,” said a neighborhood hairdresser cited only as “Barbara” in the story. “Then [emergency personnel] carried him away, like he was a sack of nothing.”

In one of the juvenile life sentence cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Joe Sullivan, who already had a “lengthy juvenile record,” was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of robbing, raping and beating a 72-year-old woman in her own home in 1989. He was 13 years old.

At the time of his sentencing, it was noted that Sullivan’s criminal record merited 846 points under Florida’s sentencing guidelines — well over the 583 points needed to impose a life sentence.

I was talking about these cases with my friend and classmate Rob Crist, who I think summed things up perfectly with a question: “What do you do with a kid like that?” For some states, the solution is to lock the kids up for the rest of their lives.

“The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan, even though Sullivan had been given opportunity after opportunity to upright himself and take advantage of the second and third chances he’s been given,” the prosecution’s brief states, quoting the trial judge.

Yet, despite the horror of the acts themselves, many argue that the kids deserve a second chance on account of their age. Sullivan’s defense team’s brief before the Supreme Court lists all the sociopsychological reasons against harsh sentences for children.

The brief argues that adolescents such as Sullivan lack the mental capacity to make responsible decisions and states that extensive punishments are unjust because children Sullivan’s age have not yet begun to form their own identities or to imagine their futures.

A partner case the Supreme Court will be hearing at the same time as Sullivan’s argues that none of the core principle purposes of criminal sentencing (retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation and deterrence) are served by sentencing minors to life without parole, especially in non-homicide cases.

A supporting brief filed on Sullivan’s behalf by a collection of religious organizations argues that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism all “accord juveniles special treatment on account of their lesser mental sophistication.”

There is also the cost involved for taxpayers. Life sentences make minors de facto wards of the state in an already overcrowded prison system. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, 20 years from now, Florida taxpayers will still be picking up the entire tab for 53-year-old Joseph Sullivan’s existence because of acts he committed when he was barely a teenager. Is this economical?

In any case, Martin’s fate is sealed, as it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will declare life imprisonment for homicidal juvenile offenders unconstitutional in his lifetime. If future underage first-degree murderers are to avoid his fate, it will take state legislative action (if sentencing laws like this bother you, call your state legislators).

Any time a juvenile commits a violent crime, it’s already a tragedy. I can’t help but think that a child like Joseph Sullivan doesn’t do what he did unless a long line of adults — people like his teachers, parents or others in his surrounding community — had failed to teach him responsibility all along.

Somehow, the world has gotten to the point where kids are killers and rapists long before they can graduate from high school. As horrible as this is, I’m skeptical that the best way to deal with our youngest criminal offenders is to lock them up and throw away the key.

Jake Parsley welcomes comments at