EJI Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Review Death-in-Prison Sentence for 13-Year-Old Child


Joe Sullivan, now 31 and confined to a wheelchair, was sentenced to die in prison for an offense that happened when he was 13.

Attorneys from EJI have filed a petition in the United States Supreme Court asking it to find that Joe Sullivan’s sentence to die in prison for a crime that occurred when he was 13 years old is cruel and unusual punishment.

Joe Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-olds in the United States to be sentenced to die in prison for an offense in which no one was killed. Both of these sentences were imposed in Florida, making Florida the only state in the country to have sentenced a 13-year-old to die in prison for a non-homicide.

A severely mentally disabled boy, Joe was blamed by an older boy for a sexual battery that was allegedly committed when they broke into a home together.

The older boy received a short sentence in juvenile detention, but Joe was tried as an adult, convicted of sexual battery, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Only eight people in the country are sentenced to die in prison for any offense committed at age 13.

The lawyer who represented Joe in his one-day trial has since been suspended from the practice of law, and the biological evidence that could have exonerated Joe was destroyed in 1993.

The lawyer appointed to represent Joe on appeal informed the court that there were no issues in his case worth appealing. Joe was unable to challenge his conviction and sentence earlier because he could not afford legal assistance.

Joe has spent 19 years in a Florida prison, where he has been assaulted and suffered deteriorating health. He is now confined to a wheelchair.

EJI took on Joe’s case as part of a national litigation project to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on young adolescents. EJI petitioned the Florida state courts to strike down Joe’s sentence, but the state courts dismissed Joe’s case.

EJI attorneys are now asking the Supreme Court to review the case and decide that Joe’s sentence to die in prison for a non-homicide at age 13 violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.