All Locked Up
Did Joe Sullivan, sentenced to life at 13, have a fair trial?
Next week the Supreme Court will hear arguments, in Sullivan v. Florida, about whether sentencing a 13-year-old boy to prison without the possibility of parole violates the cruel-and–unusual-punishment clause of the Constitution. Joe Harris Sullivan is one of two teenagers that young currently doing life without parole for a nonhomicide offense in the United States. His lawyers are hoping that the court will extend its 2005 bar on executing criminals who committed crimes as juveniles to Sullivan's sentence.
Whatever the court decides, its ruling will be based on the premise that Sullivan received a fair trial. The adequacy of that proceeding isn't before the justices now. But a brief review of the trial record reveals a process so pathetic that it raises questions about whether Sullivan committed the crime in the first place. It also seems that the trial judge may not have intended to sentence Sullivan to life without parole. In the end, that judge, along with the prosecutor and defense lawyer, failed Sullivan so deeply that we have to wonder whether his sentence reflects a deep and basic failure of ordinary criminal justice.
Here's what we do know happened. One May morning in 1989, Sullivan, then 13, and two older teens, Nathan McCants, 17, and Michael Gulley, 15, burglarized a home in Pensacola, Fla. They left with jewelry and coins. Later that day, someone returned to the house and found a 72-year-old woman, threw a black slip over her head, made her lie on her bed, and raped her orally and vaginally—so brutally that she had to have corrective surgery.
The remaining facts are trickier. The woman testified at trial that her assailant was a "dark colored boy" who "had kinky hair and he was quite black and he was small." She never looked directly at him. However, she remembered her attacker saying something like, "If you can't identify me, I may not have to kill you." At trial, she was permitted to testify that she recognized Sullivan's voice, saying, it "could very well be" his.
The two older boys, who both received brief sentences for their roles in the crimes, also testified. Gulley claimed that Sullivan said he'd raped the woman; McCants claimed not to have gone back to the house the second time.
Sullivan denied raping the elderly woman, admitting only to the initial burglary. But he was tried as an adult on two counts of sexual battery and other related charges. The only physical evidence was a fingerprint lifted from a plaque in the bedroom, which could have been made during the burglary. The clothing and other evidence have been destroyed and couldn't be tested for DNA.
Sullivan's lawyer, Mack Plant, had a straightforward job: to investigate whether Sullivan was guilty of just the burglary or the rape as well. Plant also should have found out if Sullivan's friends got reduced sentences because they flipped on him, as well as what their criminal histories were.
Plant punted at every step, beginning with his failure to address whether Sullivan was even competent to stand trial. Social science research shows that most teens don't have the ability to determine whether to take a plea deal, much less make decisions about strategy for trial. But from the record, it appears Plant never had his client's reasoning and comprehension skills evaluated.
Amy Bach is the author of Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court. She is a graduate of Stanford Law School.
Photographs of Joe Sullivan by Glenn Paul/Equal Justice Initiative.