It did not take long for the judge to determine that the convicted rapist in front of him was irredeemable.
“He is beyond help,” Judge Nicholas Geeker said of Joe Harris Sullivan. “I’m going to try to send him away for as long as I can.”
And then Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, Sullivan was 13 years old.
Now, 20 years after that sentencing in a courtroom in Pensacola, Fla., the Supreme Court will consider whether Sullivan’s prison term — and what his supporters say is an only-in-America phenomenon of extreme sentences for juveniles — violates the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The case — which has drawn widespread notice and briefs from former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and others describing their own youthful crimes — is likely to be a cardinal criminal justice decision for the court this term.
It is a natural outgrowth of the court’s bitterly divided ruling in 2005 that juveniles cannot be executed for murders they commit.