EJI Urges Delaware Supreme Court to Strike Down Death-in-Prison Sentence for 14-Year-Old


In oral argument at the Delaware Supreme Court in Dover on February 4, 2009, EJI’s Bryan Stevenson argued that the court should strike down as unconstitutional life imprisonment without parole sentences imposed on 14-year-old children. EJI represents Donald Torres, who was sentenced to die in prison in Delaware for an offense that occurred when he was just 14 years old.

At age 14, Donald Torres was arrested for his involvement in an arson in which four people died. He was tried as an adult, convicted of murder, and received a mandatory sentence to die in prison.

EJI took on Donald’s case last year and filed a petition challenging his sentence as cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment. After the trial court denied the petition, EJI appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

EJI’s argument before the state supreme court emphasized the unusualness of death-in-prison sentences for young teens. Donald Torres is the only person in the State of Delaware to be sentenced to die in prison for an offense at age 14.

EJI argued that a “Rule of 100” has emerged from United States Supreme Court precedent holding that punishments imposed on less than 100 people nationwide are unusual and unconstitutional. Only 73 people nationwide are serving death-in-prison sentences for offenses at age 13 or 14.

EJI also is challenging the mandatory nature of Donald Torres’s sentence. Under Delaware law, the trial court was required to sentence Donald to die in prison and could not consider his age or any other facts about his background that make a sentence to die in prison inappropriate.

Born to teen parents, Donald’s life was dominated by domestic violence and poverty. His father and other relatives abused drugs and alcohol; Donald became addicted as a pre-teen while struggling with depression. His low IQ indicated cognitive deficits or intellectual disability, and at 14, Donald was unable to do tasks or assume the responsibilities of a typical 14-year-old, but nothing about his dysfunctional upbringing could be considered at sentencing.

EJI is representing Donald as part of its nationwide litigation effort to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on 13-and 14-year-old children.