Friday, August 7, 2009

National groups weigh in on Jacksonville case in U.S. Supreme Court

Joe Sullivan

An array of national and international organizations have lined up behind a Jacksonville inmate whose challenge to life prison sentences for juveniles will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

Groups ranging from the Amnesty International to Mothers Against Murderers have filed a dozen briefs with the court supporting an appeal by Terrance Jamar Graham, now 22 and serving life for an armed burglary committed when he was 16. His lawyers argue that life without parole for juveniles in non-homicides is an unconstitutional punishment.
Briefs agreeing with that position are signed by 46 medical, legal, social and faith organizations and individuals. Among them: the American Psychiatric Association, Prison Fellowship, Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, United Methodist Church and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.

Many of the same groups took a similar approach in 2005 when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles convicted as adults.

We were very happy to have such a diverse group of people and organizations,” said Bryan Gowdy, Graham’s attorney. “There are a number of people who recognize this is cruel and unusual.”

The Florida Attorney General’s Office, which will argue against Graham’s appeal, declined comment because the case is pending.

Graham was arrested for the armed burglary of a friend’s father’s restaurant in 2003, charged as an adult and sentenced to probation.

A year later, Jacksonville police arrested Graham in a home-invasion robbery in which prosecutors said he held the victim at gunpoint. Prosecutors said he also admitted to several other robberies. They asked Circuit Judge Lance Day to revoke his probation.

Day did and sentenced him to life, finding that he was a danger to the community, had squandered an opportunity to turn his life around and nothing could deter him from future crimes. Prosecutors dropped the home-invasion charge.

A Florida appellate court denied his appeal, but the Supreme Court in May agreed to hear the case to decide the life sentence issue in cases other than homicides. They also are hearing a companion appeal from inmate Joe Sullivan, convicted of raping an elderly woman in Pensacola 20 years ago when he was 13. The two cases will be argued the same day but decided separately.

The friend of court, or amicus briefs, argue that life sentences for juveniles are disproportionate, contradict international law and remove any possibility of rehabilitation. Several cite scientific evidence that adolescents are less able than adults to control impulses, appreciate long-term consequences or understand the ramifications of their actions.

The American Medical Association filed a brief it said was simply to inform justices of that research. The association said it takes no side on the legal issues.

Among the most compelling filings is one that includes Simpson, describing serious crimes he committed as a juvenile. They included arson, fatally shooting a cow during a vandalism spree and assaulting a police officer who tried to arrest him after a bar fight.

“I was a monster,” Simpson said.

He and six other former juvenile offenders cite the court’s 2005 decision, which acknowledged that teens are less susceptible to deterrence, less deserving of retribution and more capable of rehabilitation. For the same reasons, they argue life sentences for juveniles without any parole possibility are improper.

Gowdy said the inclusion of Simpson and victim and faith groups show the issue isn’t liberal or conservative. And he said there have been past cases where an amicus brief contained the thinking the justices adapted as the basis for an opinion.

“I think they’ll have a significant impact with the Supreme Court,” Gowdy said.

State Rep. Michael Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, said the issue is timely for the Supreme Court to consider. Weinstein, also a prosecutor, said some of the same organizations weighed in last session when he sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have made some juveniles serving life sentences eligible for parole.

“The trend to prosecute juveniles as adults is growing across the country, and the actions that some juveniles are taking make it appropriate to consider lengthy sentences,” Weinstein said.

“Many of them are lost, but if we can’t save a percentage of them, we can’t save anybody.”

Weinstein predicted regardless of the outcome, the Supreme Court cases will increase debate about the issue.


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