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Ugly Truth: Most U.S. Kids Sentenced to Die In Prison Are Black

The U.S. stands alone in the world in condemning thousands of juveniles to life without parole. And race is a huge factor. Will the Supreme Court even consider it?

This is the second in a two-part series on juvenile life without parole. Read Part One here.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases that could have major implications for the way juvenile offenders are treated in our criminal justice system. Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida both involve men who are serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes they were convicted of as teenagers -- crimes in which no one was killed.

Joe Sullivan was only 13 years old when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 72-year-old woman in her Pensacola, Fla., home, hours after he and a group of older teenagers robbed her house. Sullivan, who reportedly suffers from mental disabilities, insisted that, while he participated in the robbery, he did not commit the rape. But his co-defendants, 15-year-old Michael Gulley and 17-year-old Nathan McCants, 17 pinned the crime on him. Both were tried as juveniles; Sullivan was tried as an adult.

Sullivan is African American, a fact that was stressed repeatedly at trial. The victim, Lena Bruner, testified that her assailant was "a colored boy" with "kinky hair" -- "he was quite black, and he was small," she said. Bruner admitted that she "did not see him full in the face," but she remembered him saying, "If you can't identify me, I may not have to kill you."

According to the New York Times, "at his trial, Mr. Sullivan was made to say those words several times." ("'It's been six months,' the woman said on the witness stand. 'It's hard, but it does sound similar.' ")

Sullivan had shabby representation -- his lawyer didn't bother making an opening statement and later lost his license to practice in Florida -- and his one-day trial should have cast serious doubts about his guilt. "The only physical evidence was a fingerprint lifted from a plaque in the bedroom, which could have been made during the burglary," wrote Amy Bach in Slate last week. "The clothing and other evidence have been destroyed and couldn't be tested for DNA." Nevertheless, he was found guilty, and at 14, Sullivan became the youngest person in the country to be sentenced to life without parole.

"I'm going to send him away for as long as I can," the judge said.

Today, Sullivan is one of some 109 prisoners in the country whose non-homicide crimes have condemned them to leave prison only in a coffin. No fewer than 76 of those prisoners are behind bars in Florida. (Until last month there were 77, but 29-year-old Travis Underhill, sentenced to life in 1999 for armed robbery, "collapsed while playing basketball at a Palm Beach County prison on Oct. 8 and died," according to the Miami Herald.) The vast majority -- 84 percent, in Florida -- are African American. On a national level, according to Human Rights Watch, African American youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of white youths.

Monday's oral arguments covered a lot of ground, including whether life-without-parole is comparable to the death penalty (which has been banned for juveniles); whether the purpose, ultimately, is about deterrence or retribution -- "What is the State's interest in keeping ... the defendant in custody for the rest of his life if he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a real danger?" --  whether, for sentencing purposes, there's any practical difference between a 13-year-old or a 10-year-old -- or, for that matter, an 18-year-old and a 17-and-11-month-old ("the line has to be drawn somewhere.") At points, it got downright philosophical ("Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?" asked Justice Kennedy.) But at the center of the argument was the question of whether children -- and their potential for rehabilitation -- should be judged by the same standards as that of grown-ups. "To not recognize the difference between a child and an adult is cruel and unusual," defense attorney Bryan Stevenson told Justice Antonin Scalia.

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