Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of life prison terms for crimes committed by children

The case of a teenage girl who got life in prison for killing the man who raped her at age 13 and pimped her out for three years is drawing renewed attention to an upcoming Supreme Court decision on life terms for underaged felons.

A feature piece at tells the story of Sara Kruzan, of Riverside, California, who met a "father figure" at age 11. By age 13, he had raped her; for the next three years, she worked 12-hour days as a prostitute for her abuser.

When Kruzan killed her tormentor at age 16, the judge declared her actions "well thought-out" and gave her life in prison without parole.

Kruzan is one of 2,574 Americans "sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes they committed as children," according to a Human Rights Watch report.


This month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases -- Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida -- in which it will rule on the constitutionality of sending underaged offenders to prison for life.

While those two Florida cases involve underage individuals who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes that didn't involve homicides, a Supreme Court ruling striking down life sentences for teenagers could have broad repercussions throughout the US justice system.

And advocates of a change to the law are getting help from an unlikely corner -- a former US senator who says he once was a "teenage thug."

Alan K. Simpson, who served as US senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, has filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief (PDF) with the Supreme Court in advance of its hearings to argue that life sentences should not be applied to under-18s because their states of mind are still in development and jailing them till death could destroy potentially productive lives.

The brief describes Simpson's life as a juvenile delinquent, decades before he would go on to serve as a US senator:

One day in Cody, Wyoming, when Simpson was in high school, he and some friends “went out to do damage.” They went to an abandoned war relocation structure and decided to “torch” it. They committed arson on federal property, a crime now punishable by up to twenty years in prison if no one is hurt ... and punishable by up to life in prison if the arson causes a person’s death...

Simpson and his friends went shooting throughout their community. They fired their rifles at mailboxes, blowing holes in several and killing a cow. They fired their weapons at a road grader. “We just raised hell,” Simpson says. Federal authorities charged Simpson with destroying government property and Simpson pleaded guilty. He received two years of probation and was required to make restitution from his own funds.

Simpson's brief, on behalf of himself and a number of other petitioners, states:

Because [Simpson and others] were not sentenced to life imprisonment – because they ultimately were given another chance, in part because of the young age at which they had committed criminal offenses – they were able to make significant contributions to their communities and even, in some cases, the nation and the world. The life stories of [Simpson and others] show how much could have been lost by concluding too quickly that they were beyond hope.

An article in the Times of London describes the cases of Joe Harris Sullivan and Terrance Graham:

Joe Harris Sullivan was 13 when a Pensacola judge sentenced him to life without parole for raping a 72-year-old woman. The judge described Sullivan as “beyond help” and declared that he would “send him away for as long as I can”. He has already spent 20 years in jail.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he was arrested for armed burglary while on probation for a previous robbery. At the time Florida was cracking down on repeat offenders and in 2005 a different judge declared Graham “incorrigible” and imposed the maximum sentence.

"Numerous legal and medical associations are supporting Sullivan and Graham on the grounds that the courts should not judge teenagers in the same way as they judge adults, just as governments recognize the difference by placing certain restrictions on juvenile drinking, voting and marrying," the Times states.

The Alternet article on Kruzan -- who is black -- notes that race is also a factor in life sentences for juveniles.

"African American youth are serving [sentences] at a rate of about 10 times that of white youth," Alison Parker of Human Rights Watch told AlterNet. "In some states, the rate is even higher."

Kruzan's case is one of the motivating factors behind California Senate Bill 399, put forward by Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, which would allow courts to review life sentences for juveniles after 10 years of a sentence has been served. But, as the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, notes, law enforcement agencies oppose the legislation, pointing out that California judges already have the discretion to allow parole after 25 years in life-sentence cases.

And critics point out that Kruzan's case is not all clear cut: As prosecutors in the case noted, by the time Kruzan killed her pimp, known as "G.G.," she was already working for another pimp. And she stole $1,500 from G.G. during the homicide. On the stand, Kruzan defended herself by arguing her new pimp threatened her life if she didn't kill him.

The "Free Sara Kruzan" campaign at MySpace can be found here.

The following video, telling Kruzan's story, was posted to YouTube February 28, 2009.

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This story was edited from its original version. It was augmented to add additional detail about Kruzan's trial.