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No life term for non-lethal teen crimes

WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday it is unconstitutional to sentence someone to life for a non-homicide crime committed as a juvenile.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said sentencing someone to life for a non-lethal crime committed before the age of 18 violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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The ruling affects most of the country. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government permit sentences of life without parole for a juvenile non-homicide offender in some circumstances, Kennedy said. However, he added, an examination of the actual practice in those states shows it is little-used.

In one of the cases before the high court, Joe Harris Sullivan was 13 in 1989 when he and several older juveniles burglarized an elderly woman's house in Pensacola. Prosecutors say he went back after the burglary and sexually attacked her so savagely, he severely injured her.

Prisoner advocates say Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-olds in the United States sentenced to life without parole for an offense that did not involve a homicide, he was "fingered" by the older defendants (who served brief sentences), identified by the victim only by voice and the DNA evidence from his rape charge was destroyed by officials before it could be used as evidence. The group says Sullivan is mentally retarded and now in a wheelchair.

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Sullivan is black and his victim was white.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he pleaded guilty to armed robbery with assault or battery (an offense that could carry a life sentence) and robbery of a restaurant in which a fellow defendant hit the manager over the head with a steel pipe. The plea was conditional on Graham spending a year in detention and three years on probation.

He was released in June 2004. By the following December, Graham at 17 was conducting a home invasion in which he and two others forced a man to the floor and Graham held a pistol to the man's head, demanding money, court records say.

After his arrest, Graham admitted committing several other robberies in the same neighborhood. On conviction, he was sentenced to life without parole for violating his parole.

Like Sullivan, Graham is black. His victims were white and Hispanic.

Both sentences were reversed and sent back down to a lower court.

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