WASHINGTON - Joe Sullivan was 13 when he and two older boys broke into a home and robbed and raped an elderly woman. In 1989, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
Terrance Graham was 16 when he and two others robbed a restaurant. Later, in 2005, after a home break-in, Graham received a life term with no parole.
The two represent a uniquely American phenomenon, one the Supreme Court is set to reconsider in the fall term that opens Monday. At issue is whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to send a teenager to prison until he or she dies for a crime that did not involve murder.
Amnesty International says the United States "is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles."
Nearly all of the estimated 2,500 prisoners serving life terms for juvenile crimes in various states, the group said, were guilty either of murder or participating in a crime that led to a homicide.
There are, however, 109 inmates - the vast majority of them in Florida - serving life sentences for a non-homicide crime committed when they were younger than 18.
"We are not asking for Mr. Graham to be released any time soon," attorney Bryan S. Gowdy said. "We are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a sentence of life without parole for these crimes."
Terrance Jamar Graham v. Florida and Joe Harris Sullivan v. Florida will be heard in November. Until the high court agreed this year to take up the issue, many lawyers and prosecutors said, they were unaware of such life terms.
Sullivan, now 33, has been in prison for 20 years. The Florida appeals court and the state Supreme Court declined to review his sentence.
When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said the appeal should be dismissed because it was too late to raise the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.
A lawyer for Graham called his client's life sentence freakish and unfair. A second youth who participated in the restaurant robbery hit an employee with a club. He was later arrested for robbing a gas station and sentenced to three years in prison. He has since been released.
Florida leads the nation in sending teenagers to prison for life with no parole for crimes such as burglary, assault, and rape. At least 77 Florida inmates are serving life terms for non-homicide crimes committed when they were younger than 18.
Some of the other cases the court is to hear:
Animal cruelty: Can Congress make it a crime to sell videos of dogfights and other acts of animal cruelty? Last year, this law was struck down on free-speech grounds (U.S. v. Stevens).
Mutual funds: Can shareholders sue to contest the high fees charged by investment advisers? In rejecting such a claim, a U.S. appeals court said that as long as the fees are disclosed, they are not subject to a legal challenge. (Jones v. Harris Associates).