Florida Supreme Court to Decide Legality of Life Long Term of Years Sentences for Juvenile Non-homicide Offenders

By Scott Kalish

In Gridine v. State of Florida (SC12-1223) and Henry v. State of Florida (SC12-578), argued on Monday, the court was presented with the issue of whether the 8th amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense from receiving a prison term that exceeds their life expectancy without the opportunity for parole.

In Gridine, the petitioner was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery when at age 14 he shot the victim behind a gas station. The court essentially imposed a 70 year sentence. In Henry, the petitioner was convicted of three counts of sexual battery with a deadly weapon or physical force, one count of kidnapping with intent to commit a felony, two counts of robbery, one count of carjacking, one count of burglary of a dwelling, and one count of possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis (committed at the age of 17). The court sentenced Henry to a minimum total sentence of 76.5 years.

The main argument both petitioners present centers around the United States Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), which held there is a violation of the 8th amendment when a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide offense. Graham mandates that in cases that result in non-homicide convictions the court must “provide a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Petitioners present the argument that although their sentences are not categorically “life without parole,” the defendants will likely die in prison based on national statistics, and therefore be denied a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated rehabilitation, which is what the holding in Graham seeks to prevent. The petitioners urged the court not to view being sentenced to “life without parole” as a “condition precedent” to the application of Graham, but rather to consider the rationale behind the court’s holding and let the sprit of the law prevail.

The state contends that the court must apply the holding in Graham narrowly and require a juvenile to be sentenced to “life without parole,” because of the constraint that the Conformity Clause of the Florida Constitution has on Florida courts. Respondents argue that an extension of the Supreme Court’s holding in Graham would be unconstitutional, because the Conformity Clause requires cases interpreting the prohibition on cruel and unusual sentences to conform to decisions of the United States Supreme Court on the matter. The state contended that the decision in Graham was meant to apply narrowly, and that the majority of Florida District Courts have confronted this issue and have uniformly interpreted Graham narrowly, requiring a sentence of life without parole.

These cases are of great public importance because a decision may determine whether juveniles will receive leniency when being sentenced for non-homicide crimes. A decision will also shed light on judicial interpretation, specifically whether the Court will let the rationale of Graham prevail over its expressed holding. Because the case turns on matters of federal law, it may ultimately be decided the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oral arguments in this case can be viewed here.

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