Archive for February, 2009

Of all the countries that practice capital punishment, China ranks #1 on the list. According to Amnesty International, in 2007 China put more than 470 individuals to death. While human rights organizations have kept close tabs on China’s oft-secretive judicial proceedings in the last thirty years, for many decades China successfully kept its greatest atrocities hidden from the outside world. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s through Tiananmen Square in 1989, China murdered, tortured, and imprisoned millions of its citizens– often after impromptu trials or none at all.

In her memoir Socialism is Great, Lijia Zhang describes the execution of her childhood friend at the age of sixteen in 1980:

[His] execution was a big day out for my school. The sixteen-year-old was a former classmate of mine named Roc. His old classmates and other children, as young as twelve, joined the excited crowds filling the ten-thousand-seat Nanjing Stadium for the public sentencing rally. ‘Scare the monkey by killing a chicken’– the authorities invited the masses to witness the iron fist of proletarian dictatorship and to draw lessons from negative examples. The guilty verdicts were read out to loud applause. Then the condemned, wearing a placard stating their crimes, were paraded onto open-top army trucks, toward the execution guard in the western suburbs. I had been to this killing field several times, although in the crush of bodies I never got close enough to witness the spill of blood as, from behind, bullets ripped open the prisoners’ heads. But the boys in my village had shared many vivid accounts. The Chinese seemed to take pleasure in this ghoulish spectator sport, watching soldiers kill the ‘rotten eggs,’ as local slang termed the baddies. No one doubted they were guilty. This time, however, I didn’t follow the herd: Roc wasn’t just a ‘rotten egg.’ He was a childhood friend who caught cicadas and swam in the Pig Pool with me.

The whole tragic drama, from the fight to the execution, took place so quickly: there were quotas to be met in the crackdown against soaring crime, regardless of whether suspects were under eighteen, technically the minimum age for capital punishment. The only way officials knew how to combat the rising crime was to punish some people swiftly and without mercy. No effort was made to tackle the social roots of the problem (44-45).

While Zhang was moved to reconsider the merits of execution for personal reasons, her conclusion resonates with pragmatism and compassion. Capital punishment does not prevent or slow crime, whether performed in or outside of the legal system– instead it lubricates the spinning cycle of violence by which those punished crimes are distinguished. It is the greatest disregard to life and justice, two of humanity’s most precious values.

Book cover courtesy of Atlas & Co.


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Thirteen-year-old boys are a typical bunch. Most spend their free time hanging out with their buddies and playing sports, roughhousing to explore the limits of their rapidly-growing bodies. They are not quite children and certainly not men; they hover somewhere between, with a few kids growing up just a bit too soon while others never seem to leave childhood behind.

In 1989, when Joe Sullivan was 13, he broke into an elderly woman’s home, robbed it with two friends, and allegedly returned later to rape her. Sullivan admitted to the burglary but denied that he sexually assaulted the 72 year-old. After a trial that lasted a mere day, he was convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole-a teenager condemned to begin and end his adult life locked behind bars.

Clearly, Sullivan was not a typical 13 year-old. He planned at least one serious crime with two accomplices, both older friends of his. This seems to be the case of a young man falling in with the wrong crowd, one that steered him toward the kinds of trouble that most teenagers avoid. When you bring the rape charge into consideration, it launches Sullivan into the realm of an adult as rape is a very severe, intentional infliction of harm-but in Sullivan’s case, should he pay an adult punishment?

Let’s assume Sullivan is guilty of the rape for which he was convicted. Facts to consider: He was 13 years-old. He may have been influenced to do it by his older friends. The rape was not notably brutal or violent (for sexual assault). If kept in a juvenile facility until the age of 25, he would have served 12 years in prison, nearly two years more than the national average sentence for adults convicted of rape.

So why is Sullivan still behind bars twenty years later? As Adam Liptak of the New York Times points out, since 1989, no one-adult or juvenile-in the United States has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the crime of rape. Furthermore, only eight people in the world are serving life sentences for crimes committed at the age of 13, all of them in the U.S.

These judicial trends suggest people simply aren’t comfortable condemning the youngest teenagers to life behind bars forever. It’s a harsh price to pay for someone in the earliest throes of puberty, someone who can’t drive a car, vote, or see an R-rated movie without a guardian. The seriousness of rape can’t be ignored, but creating a sentencing system for juveniles that denies the possibility for parole contradicts the most important goal of the penal system-rehabilitation. Can we really stand to throw away people’s chances for changing their lives when they’ve barely just begun them?

Sullivan’s case is aided by indications that he may not have gotten a fair trial. The lawyer who defended him has been disbarred in Florida, and DNA evidence collected at the scene was not presented at the trial. This is a prime opportunity for the Supreme Court to make precedence and rule that 13 year-olds are ineligible for life sentences without the possibility of parole. While they are certainly capable of making grave mistakes, teenagers should not have to pay an adult, permanent price, especially if their crimes do not involve taking the lives of others.

Write or email Bill McCollum, Florida’s Attorney General, and show your support for Joe Sullivan:

Office of Attorney General
State of Florida
The Capitol PL-01
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050

**Update: According to the Equal Justice Initiative‘s report “Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison,” there are currently nine individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed at the age of 13.  They also note that Joe Sullivan is mentally disabled and currently confined to a wheelchair because of medical problems.

Click here to read an editorial in the Detroit Free Press advocating against life sentences for juveniles.**

Photo copyright Glenn Paul.

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