The United States Supreme Court in a deeply divided opinion reversed a conviction of a 16-year old minor who was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for a non-homicide Florida offense of home invasion robbery. In Graham v. Florida, the court held that a sentence of LWOP for any juvenile offender in this country who did not commit a homicide is unconstitutional as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In Graham, while the defendant was age 16, he and three other classmates attempted to rob a restaurant where one of the youths worked. One of Graham’s accomplices struck the restaurant manager, who required stitches. Graham pleaded guilty to armed robbery with assault and battery, and promised to turn his life around if the court had sentenced him to probation. The sentencing judge did exactly what Graham was requesting, and placed him on formal probation. Less than six months later, however, Graham violated his terms of probation by participating in a home invasion robbery in which he and his accomplices held the occupant at gunpoint. This time, the judge determined that Graham had thrown away his opportunity to reform himself, and the Graham was sentenced to the maximum term on each count, which included life imprisonment. Because Florida has abolished its parole system, the life sentence left him no possibility of release except executive clemency.
In holding that LWOP was an unconstitutional sentence for any juvenile who did not commit murder, the Supreme Court applied a categorical rule that implicated only a very narrow type of criminal sentence. The court expressly limited the scope of its holding to juveniles who were actually sentenced to LWOP solely for non-homicide offenses. The court, thus, excluded from its analysis other cases where juveniles could be sentenced to lengthy term-of-years terms, for instance, 80 or 100 years’ imprisonment.
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