EJI Client Joe Sullivan’s Death-in-Prison Sentence Overturned by United States Supreme Court’s Ruling


Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. The ruling creates a new categorical rule that invalidates Joe Sullivan’s sentence to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime at age 13.

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Graham v. Florida creates a categorical rule barring life imprisonment without parole for children under age 18 who commit a non-homicide offense. Graham was argued on the day that EJI’s Bryan Stevenson argued Joe Sullivan’s case, Sullivan v. Florida, at the Supreme Court.

Both cases involve juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide offenses. Joe Sullivan was just 13 years old at the time of his offense. Terrance Graham was 17 when he violated probation and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Court could have distinguished between young adolescents like Joe and older teens like Terrance Graham, reaching different results and writing separate opinions in each case. Instead, it created a categorical rule that covers all children under 18 at the time of the offense. “We are delighted that the Court did not draw a line between older and younger children,” said Bryan Stevenson, who represents Joe Sullivan. Because the Court’s new rule applies to all children, he explained, it did not need to write separate opinions in the two cases and “dismissed as improvidently granted” in Joe’s case.

Joe’s case is discussed in the Graham decision as an example why the categorical rule created by the Court is necessary. Every categorical rule of the sort announced by the Court today has been held retroactive because it limits the government’s authority to impose this punishment.

Joe Sullivan, and other juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicides, will now use the new rule established in Graham to obtain a new sentence that, as Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, provides a “realistic opportunity to obtain release.”