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Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison

October 17, 2007
N-115, 2007-08

Bryan Stevenson 334.269.1803 bstevenson@eji.org

New Research Uncovers Dozens of 13- And 14-Year-Old Children Sentenced To Life Imprisonment Without the Possibility Of Parole

First-Ever Study of Youngest Children Condemned to Die in Prison Finds Mandatory Sentencing Forced Judges in Majority of Cases to Impose Harshest Sentence Without Considering Child’s Age or Background

Seventy-three children in the United States have been sentenced to life imprisonment without any chance for parole despite being only 13 or 14 at the time of the crime, according to a newly published study by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is a nonprofit legal research and advocacy group based in Montgomery, Ala. and New York City.

These 73 children were tried as adults and condemned to die in adult prisons. EJI’s study found that the majority were accomplices to adults or older teens who were more culpable for the crime. In seven (about 10 percent) of these cases, the offense did not result in anyone’s death; in one case, no one was even injured. Nearly two-thirds of these 73 children are kids of color and many were victims of severe abuse and neglect.

Yet mandatory sentencing schemes forced judges in most of these cases to impose the harshest available sentence without consideration for the child’s age or background or the circumstances of the offense. “This is an unintended and disastrous consequence of prosecuting children as adults: children too young to drive, or even see a scary movie by themselves, are being sentenced to die in adult prisons,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of EJI and clinical professor at New York University’s School of Law.

The United States is the only country in the world where a 13- or 14-year-old is known to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In fact, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except the U.S. and Somalia, forbids life without parole sentences for children. EJI contends that these sentences for the youngest children violate the United States Constitution and has filed legal challenges on behalf of condemned children in states across the country. “Condemning 13- and 14-year-olds to die in prison ignores new research on early adolescence which reveals that kids this age tend to be impulsive and less able to gauge consequences and resist peer pressure,” says Stevenson. “It also ignores a child’s capacity for change.”

In the 1990s, tough-on-crime politicians led states to lower the age at which children could be prosecuted and sentenced as adults, which dramatically increased the number of younger kids sentenced to adult prisons. 2,225 teens who were 17 or younger have been sentenced to die in prison in the U.S. Cruel and Unusual is the first national study focusing on the youngest of these children. A team of EJI attorneys spent 18 months collecting data from corrections departments in every state, pouring over thousands of court documents, studies, and articles, and interviewing dozens of juvenile justice scholars and practitioners throughout the country.

EJI uncovered 73 cases in 19 states where children 13 or 14 at the time of the offense were sentenced to die in prison. In six states — Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington — children were sentenced to death in prison for offenses that occurred when they were 13, making them the youngest offenders in the world to be sentenced to imprisonment until death. All 73 are now adults; the youngest is 18. Pennsylvania leads the nation in sentencing young children to die in prison, with 18 condemned for crimes when they were 13 or 14, followed by Florida, with 15.

Nearly all had woefully inadequate legal counsel. “The majority of these kids could have avoided these sentences with better legal representation at trial,” says Stevenson, noting that EJI researchers discovered that many of the court-appointed lawyers had never filed post-conviction appeals or challenged the legality of death-in-prison sentences for 13- and 14-year-old children.

Ian Manuel, for instance, was told by his attorney that he would receive a 15-year sentence if he plead guilty to committing an aggravated robbery that occurred in Florida when he was just 13. Ian pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole. His attorney did not appeal or withdraw the plea. Now 30, Ian remains condemned to die in a Florida prison.

EJI’s ultimate goal is for the courts to abolish death-in-prison sentences for 13-and 14-year-old children. While EJI opposes life imprisonment without parole sentences for older teens as well, the legal advocacy group is focusing its efforts on the youngest adolescents because imposing the harshest sentence on the youngest kids most dramatically reveals cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and international law.

The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization committed to providing quality legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Its offices are in Montgomery, Ala. and New York City.

To download a copy of the report, visit www.eji.org.

SUMMARY OF THE MAJOR FINDINGS

  • 73 children in the U.S. have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14 years old.
  • The U.S. is only country in the world known to have condemned 13- and 14-year-old children to imprisonment until death.
  • Most of these young children were accomplices to adults or older teens who were more culpable for the crime.
  • Seven, or roughly 10 percent, of the 73 children were convicted of crimes in which no one was killed. In one case, no one was even injured. All seven are children of color.
  • Six states have condemned 13-year-old children to imprisonment until death. All but one of these children are racial minorities.
  • Most of the 73 suffered years of severe abuse and neglect. Some tried to commit suicide as young as age eight.
  • Judges in the vast majority of these cases were forced to impose mandatory death-in-prison sentences without considering the child’s age or background or the circumstances of the crime.
  • Children of color are disproportionately sentenced to die in prison. Of the 73 children identified, roughly two-thirds are people of color; nearly half are African American.
  • Most of these kids are from poor families and received grossly inadequate legal representation. Court-appointed attorneys failed to file post-conviction appeals and never challenged the death-in-prison sentence in most of these cases.
  • All of the 73 have been sent to adult prisons, where many are the target of horrendous physical and sexual assault by adult inmates. One EJI client attempted suicide three times after being repeatedly raped by adult inmates.

SNAPSHOTS OF CHILDREN CONDEMNED TO DIE IN PRISON

  • ANTONIO NUNEZ — Only Child in the Country Known to Be Condemned to Die in Prison For a Single Incident in which No One was Injured. Antonio Nunez was 14 when, in April 2001, he left a party in California with two men nearly twice his age. One of the men later claimed to be a kidnapping victim. When police chased their car and shots were fired, Antonio — along with the 27-year-old driver — was arrested. No one was injured, but Antonio was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Just a year before, Antonio was shot multiple times while riding his bicycle near his house in South Central Los Angeles. His brother, 14, was fatally shot in the head when he ran to help Antonio.
  • IAN MANUEL - Too Poor to Afford Adequate Counsel, He is Sentenced to Imprisonment Until Death for a Crime with No Fatalities, Even Though the Victim Has Forgiven Him and Petitioned for His Release. In 1990, when Ian Manuel was 13, gang members instructed him to commit a robbery. During the botched robbery attempt in downtown Tampa, Florida, Ian shot and wounded a woman. He turned himself in to the police. Ian’s attorney told him to plead guilty in exchange for a 15-year prison sentence. Ian accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty but was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. His lawyer never appealed or withdrew the plea. Ian was sent to prison, where he was so small no prison uniform fit him. He has spent years in solitary confinement and repeatedly attempted suicide. The victim has forgiven Ian and petitioned for his release but he remains condemned to die in a Florida prison.
  • ASHLEY JONES — Victim of Horrendous Abuse, She is One of Four 13 or 14-year-Old Girls in the Country Condemned to Death in Prison. Ashley Jones was assaulted by her father, sexually abused by her stepfather, and repeatedly threatened at gunpoint by her crack-addicted mother. At 14, Ashley, depressed and suicidal, became involved with an older boy. He shot and killed Ashley’s grandfather and aunt and injured her grandmother and sister. Due to Alabama’s harsh mandatory sentencing laws, the court did not consider Ashley’s age or background and sentenced her to the most severe possible punishment. Her grandmother and sister, victims of the crime, both have forgiven her and campaigned for her release.
  • JOE SULLIVAN — Mentally Disabled and Only 13, He was Alone and Without Legal Counsel When Police Interrogated Him. Joe Sullivan was only 13 and severely mentally disabled when he was blamed by an older boy for a sexual battery allegedly committed when they broke into a home together. Despite his age and disabilities, Joe’s father dropped him off at the police station to face questioning alone. The attorney appointed to represent Joe at trial has since been suspended from practicing law. Joe, now 31, continues to assert his innocence and is confined to a wheelchair. He is one of only two people in the country known to have been sentenced to die in prison for a non-homicide offense that occurred at age 13.

For more information, contact Bryan Stevenson at 334.269.1803 or bstevenson@eji.org.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
School of Law, Research

Type: Press Release

Joseph Jones is imprisoned in North Carolina, where he was condemned to life imprisonment without parole for an offense committed at age 13.

Joseph Jones is imprisoned in North Carolina, where he was condemned to life imprisonment without parole for an offense committed at age 13.


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