It’s not every day that a convicted person gets the chance to walk free from prison after being sentenced to life without parole, but that’s exactly what two local criminal Defendants have asked a local court to allow them to do. As reported by both the Sun Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post, defendants David Slocum and Emmanuel Paul argued to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Edward Garrison that he erred in 1995 when he sentenced the two of them, who were 16 years old at the time, to life in prison for raping an individual named Jenny Clark, a 17 year-old student from Switzerland. At a hearing conducted on Tuesday, November 21, 2011, the court took testimony and listened to argument of counsel. Rather than ruling from the bench, the Court has reset the matter for continued hearings on December 15 and 16, 2011.
Although not named in the article, the case most likely relied on by Defendants Slocum and Paul is Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010), wherein the United States Supreme Court held that sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without parole for a non-homicide offense violates the Eighth Amendment. Interestingly, Graham originated from Florida’s state courts. When Graham was 16, he and several other youths attempted to rob a barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville. Graham and one of his accomplices struck the restaurant manager in the head with a metal bar, but then fled after the manager started yelling. The manager required stitches, and no money was taken. Graham was charged as an adult, and was given a combination of county jail time and probation. Unfortunately for Graham, he was arrested again for two more robberies only six months later. After considering the evidence as to the violations of probation and the new charges, the court ultimately sentenced Graham to life imprisonment. Because Florida abolished its parole system in 2003, Graham was only be eligible for release if he were granted clemency. Graham filed a motion challenging his sentence under the Eighth Amendment, but the trial court denied it. The First DCA affirmed the denial, again finding no violation of the Eighth Amendment. See Graham v. State, 982 So.2d 43 (Fla 1st DCA 2008). The Florida Supreme Court declined review.
Although long, the United States Supreme Court opinion is an interesting read because, like many sentencing opinions, it contains a lot of empirical data from around the country and from other nations. Sadly, the Court noted that of the 123 juvenile nonhomicide offenders serving sentences of life without parole, 77 were serving sentences imposed in Florida. In support of its holding that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide offense violates the Eighth Amendment, the Court reasoned that (1) because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments; (2) life without parole is “the second most severe penalty permitted by law;” (3) juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole will, on average, serve more years and a greater percentage of their lives in prison than adult offenders; (4) sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide offense lacks “any legitimate penological justification” and is therefore disproportionate to the offense; and, (5) none of the traditional reasons justifying life without parole for adults (deterrence, retribution, rescidivism/incapacitation, and rehabilitation) apply to juveniles who commit non-homicidal offenses. Because sentencing a juvenile who committed a non-homicide offense to life without parole “improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity,” the Court held that States must “give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
How the States comply with the Graham directive to provide a “realistic opportunity to obtain release” was left open by the Graham opinion. The cases of Slocum and Paul would seem to be a real-time application of Graham.