Will judge impose life in Florida case? National experts watching
With Supreme Court case hanging over it, sentencing may highlight questions, debate in life sentences for juveniles
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
WEST PALM BEACH — Jakaris Taylor was 15 and Nathan Walker was 16 when they joined as many as eight other young men who barged into a Dunbar Village apartment two years ago, gang-raped a 35-year-old woman and tortured her 12-year-old son.
If they lived in almost any other state in the nation, they wouldn’t be facing life in prison with no chance for parole when they go before a judge for sentencing today.
Few other states send juveniles to prison for life for crimes other than murder. Outside the United States, it’s almost unheard of.
Florida, in contrast, leads the nation and therefore the world in the number of juveniles sentenced to life for crimes varying from rape to carjacking to robbery. Nationally, there are 109 inmates who were younger than 18 when they committed crimes other than murder that sent them to prison for life. Of those, 77 are in Florida prisons.
Attorneys representing Taylor and Walker said Monday they intend to point out Florida’s disturbing track record to Circuit Judge Krista Marx in hopes she will ignore those who are clamoring for her to mete out the harshest punishment for the vicious crime.
Even if Marx imposes life sentences, the attorneys said they are hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court may reverse her decision.
The high court in November is expected to hear arguments from lawyers in two Florida cases who claim that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for crimes other than murder violates U.S. constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.
Mirroring arguments raised by those involved in the Supreme Court case, Taylor’s attorney, Chris Haddad, points out what anyone who has raised kids knows: They think differently from adults. Haddad said he plans to call a mental health expert to explain why.
However, even psychologists who have studied troubled youths don’t agree on whether juveniles should be held to the same standards as adults.
Deborah Leporowski, a Jupiter clinical and forensic psychologist, said countless studies have shown that adolescent brains are works in progress. The prefrontal cortex, which controls the ability to plan, prioritize, understand consequences and moderate behavior, isn’t fully developed until a person is 21, she said.
“We know most juveniles have trouble with abstract thinking,” she said. “They’re still growing, still learning from their mistakes. Their decision-making capacities aren’t fully developed.”
“The analogy I give people,” she continued, “is that you wouldn’t take even a brilliant second-grader and try to teach them algebra. Other than a prodigy, they just wouldn’t get it. It’s too abstract. You can’t force it.”
While she understands society likes its pound of flesh, it also embraces those who turn their lives around. Because juveniles’ brains are still growing, they are good candidates for rehabilitation.
“We could help them. We could teach them. We could change them,” she said.
Laurence Miller, a clinical, forensic and police psychologist in Boca Raton, scoffs at the notion that an undeveloped prefrontal cortex explains juvenile crime. He cites studies that show the cortex grows until people are in their late 30s.
“It’s a red herring,” he said. He said he knows 40-year-olds who act without thinking and 12-year-olds who are more emotionally mature than their parents.
Decisions about whether a person understood the consequences of his acts should be made on an individual basis, he said. “Simply because someone is 14, not 18, is a poor reason to make a determination that they should receive a lighter sentence,” he said.
One of the men who is to be sentenced today was 18 when the rape took place. Tommy Poindexter, who tested positive for cocaine at birth and has scored borderline mentally retarded on IQ tests, would not be eligible for a lighter sentence based solely on his age regardless of what the Supreme Court does.
Avion Lawson, who at 14 was the youngest of the four rapists, pleaded guilty in exchange for his testimony and information about others who haven’t been charged.
Lawson, who is to be sentenced in December, described Poindexter as the gun-wielding mastermind of the attack.
Role of peer pressure
Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law school professor who led a recent study of juvenile sentencing, said 89 percent of juvenile crimes occur in groups.
Though not familiar with the Dunbar Village rape case, he said peer pressure plays a huge role. Older youths browbeat younger ones into committing crimes.
He said Florida’s harsh treatment of juvenile offenders was neither intentional nor well thought out. In a tough-on-crime frenzy, lawmakers eliminated parole for adults. Then, in a separate action, it gave prosecutors, not judges, the ability to determine whether to try juveniles as adults. The number of youths tried as adults skyrocketed from a few to 7,000 in one year.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said.
He said he is hopeful that the high court will agree that juveniles should not receive what he considers the equivalent of the death sentence for crimes that don’t involve murder. Such a decision would be a logical extension of the 2005 ruling that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, he said.
While not discounting the brutality of the rape, Haddad said the demonization of his client and the others is upsetting.
“You’re going to see an (18-year-old) tomorrow watch all his dreams torn apart because of 20 minutes of his life,” he said.
Judge Marx known for tough sentences, tough words
A former prosecutor, Circuit Judge Krista Marx is no stranger to high-profile cases. She has handed down some tough sentences and tough words in her 11 years on the bench.
8: The number of states that have juveniles serving life without parole for crimes other than murder.*
84: The percentage of blacks who are among juveniles serving life without parole for crimes other than murder in Florida.
13: The youngest age of youths sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than murder.
7: The number of states that do not legally permit juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for any offense. (Texas doesn’t allow such sentences for youths under 17.)
*Nevada, Utah and Virginia did not participate in the study.
How Palm Beach County compares with some of the state’s other 66 counties in the number of juveniles sent to prison for life for crimes that don’t involve murder:
Palm Beach 5
St. Lucie 3
Two Florida cases about whether juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 9:
Joe Sullivan, in 1989 broke into a Pensacola house with a group of teens, raped a 72-year-old woman and stole some jewelry and coins. He was 13.
Terrance Graham, at age 16 joined another teen in the armed robbery of a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville. His co-defendant hit the manager with a steel pipe.