The growing pains of Graham v. Florida: deciphering whether lengthy term-of-years sentences for juvenile defendants can equate to the unconstitutional sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

AuthorSavona, Therese A.

"We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions."

--Ronald Reagan

On December 4, 2010, Eric Sandefur, a seventeen-year-old living in Jacksonville, Florida, attacked Jason Jerome, a twenty-eight-year-old homeless man. (1) At the time of the attack, Jerome was asleep behind an office building. (2) Sandefur stabbed Jerome "in his hip, chest, stomach and neck," as well as "nearly amputat[ing] [Jerome's] middle finger...." (3) Caught on a security camera of the office building, Sandefur wore a suit during the attack. (4) Within minutes of the stabbing, the surveillance video depicted an overwhelming amount of blood on Jerome's blanket. (5)

Confessing to the stabbing, Sandefur told investigators that he drew his knife "and decided to cut [Jerome's] throat." (6) Sandefur disturbingly stated that he "want[ed] to kill someone to see what it felt like." (7) The confession video portrayed a cool, calm Sandefur who did not hesitate to inform investigators: "I pretty much made my decision about what I was going to do that night, I intended to kill him. Just thinking about how to do it if I find someone." (8) During his confession, Sandefur indicated he had no regrets of trying to kill his victim. (9)

After being charged as an adult for the crime of attempted first-degree murder, Sandefur entered a plea of guilty. (10) At Sandefur's sentencing hearing, the trial court judge told Sandefur that she reviewed his "sentencing video twice, and [was] deeply concerned about the safety of the citizens of the state of Florida." (11) The judge imposed a sentence of forty years, the maximum sentence for the crime of attempted first-degree murder. (12)

In Graham v. Florida, (13) the United States Supreme Court created a categorical ban on juveniles being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes. (14) This ruling spurred the national question of whether a term-of-years sentence amounted to a de facto life sentence. (15) Defendants argue that a variety of sentences for a myriad of crimes violate Graham because those sentences guarantee the defendants will die in prison. Thus, it is no different than the outlawed sentence of life without the possibility of parole. (16)

This article will provide a basic understanding of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and then explores how the most recent United States Supreme Court cases of Graham v. Florida (17) and Miller v. Alabama (18) affect juvenile resentencing. (19) Additionally, this article addresses the most recent trend presented in juvenile cases where the juvenile defendant is charged as an adult, tried as an adult, and sentenced accordingly. (20) Specifically, the issue of a lengthy term-of-years sentence in states such as California and Florida appear to be the battleground of diverse opinions, more so perhaps than other states. (21)


    At the heart of this discussion is the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which preserves that "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." (22) Even though the Eighth Amendment is no stranger to discussion, the underpinnings of this amendment provide valuable, necessary insight to comprehend why this protection was sought to be included when our Founding Fathers forged this country. (23)

    Punishments for committing crimes are found throughout history. Perhaps first mentioned in religious writings, "[o]ne of the laws given to Moses by the God of the Jewish nation, Yahweh, was the lex talionis--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." (24) Even though many believed this to be "the product of a vengeful deity," the translation of lex talionis "prescribe[s] a maximum limit on punishment. (25) 'Talio' is Latin for 'equivalent to' or 'equal.'" (26) This concept of proportionality continued to emerge through antiquity, with the philosopher Aristotle teaching that "It]he law never looks beyond the question, [w]hat damage was done? [A]nd it treats the parties involved as equals. All it asks is whether an injustice has been done or an injury inflicted by one party on the other." (27)

    During the Age of Enlightenment, Cesare Beccaria's treatise, On Crimes and Punishments, addressed (as its title suggests) the unjust punishments readily associated with crimes throughout Europe. (28) As described by Beccaria, "[1]aws are the terms by which independent and isolated men united to form a society, once by the tired of living in a perpetual state of war where the enjoyment of liberty was rendered useless by the uncertainty of its preservation." (29) Beccaria believed sacrificing aspects of liberty ensured that society "could enjoy the remainder in security and peace. The sum of all these portions of liberty sacrificed for each individual's benefit constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the legitimate keeper and administrator of those portions." (30) However, "it was not enough to create this depository; it had to be defended from the private usurpations of each particular individual, since everyone always tries to withdraw not only his own share but also to usurp that belonging to others." (31) Punishment against lawbreakers or "tangible measures" became necessary "to prevent the despotic spirit of every individual from plunging the laws of society back into primeval chaos." (32)

    The evolution of many types of punishments can be traced from the biblical era (33) through the Middle Ages, (34) and across the Atlantic Ocean to the formation of this country, (35) and the nature of punishment within the American legal system still continues to evolve. Before the solidification of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, death by hanging remained a common sentence for crimes of the simplest form, including mere speculation of witchcraft. (36) However, since the Eighth Amendment's ratification, the United States Supreme Court continually demarcates the permissible boundaries of this right to adequately reflect our society's "evolving standards of decency." (37)

    The Eighth Amendment is grounded by its requirement of proportionality. (38) Two categories of proportionality are considered: 1) a challenge premised on a "length[y] term-of-years sentence given all the circumstances of a particular case," (39) and 2) categorical constraints in the capital context. (40) However, "[t]he Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." (41) This underlying theory "reserves a constitutional violation for only the extraordinary case." (42) In the context of a term-of-years sentence, the Supreme Court admitted that "in determining whether a particular sentence for a term of years can violate the Eighth Amendment, we have not established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow." (43)


    Within the past decade, the parameters of juvenile sentencing have been revisited so that what is permitted or prohibited under the Eighth Amendment has been reestablished. First, the Supreme Court held that juveniles could not receive the death penalty. (44) Then, in Graham, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes was prohibited under the Eighth Amendment when sentencing a juvenile. (45) More recently, the Miller court found the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit any crime, regardless of its homicidal nature. (46)


      At the age of sixteen, Terrance Graham attempted to rob a restaurant with several of his friends. (47) Graham and one of his friends wore masks when they entered the restaurant through a back door that was previously unlocked by one of Graham's friends who was an employee at the restaurant. (48) Graham's masked friend "twice struck the restaurant manager in the back of the head with a metal bar." (49) When the restaurant manager yelled at Graham and his accomplice, they ran out of the restaurant and jumped into a getaway car driven by a fellow assailant. (50)

      Based on these criminal actions, Graham was charged as an adult (51) with armed burglary with an assault or battery and attempted armed robbery. (52) Pleading guilty to the charges, Graham received three years of probation for each count to run concurrently, (53) avoiding a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (54)

      Within six months of receiving probation and thirty-four days shy of his eighteenth birthday, Graham and two others forcibly entered a home and ransacked the residence in search of money. (55) During the home invasion robbery, Graham held a gun to the chest of one of the residents. (56) In fact, Graham and his two accomplices held the two residents at gunpoint for a half hour while they pillaged through the home. (57) Afterward, Graham and his accomplices attempted a different robbery, during the course of which one of Graham's accomplices was shot. (58) Police apprehended Graham as he fled from his father's car after engaging law enforcement in a high-speed chase. (59) "Three handguns were found in the car." (60)

      As a result of Graham's participation in the home invasion robbery, possession of a firearm, and "associating with persons engaged in criminal activity," the trial court found that Graham violated his probation. (61) Graham admitted he violated his probation by fleeing from law enforcement. (62) The trial court then sentenced Graham to fifteen years for the charge of attempted armed robbery and to life without the possibility of parole for the charge of armed burglary...

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