In 1989 in Pensacola, Florida, thirteen-year-old Joe Sullivan went with two older teenagers to rob an elderly woman’s house. Later that day, a group broke into the woman’s house and raped her. Police suspected Joe and his friends, who were found nearby with the woman’s jewelry. The boys told police that Joe had raped her. Joe admitted the robbery, but denied sexual assault. Police destroyed DNA samples taken after the rape. The woman could only remember that her attacker was black. Joe had been physically abused, neglected, and he had an intellectual disability. At twelve he had faced nonviolent charges, and his probation officer described him as impressionable and capable of reform. At Joe’s trial for the alleged rape, his lawyers offered little defense. The judge declared that Joe had proven irredeemable. Stevenson comments that Joe hadn’t had any real chances. Joe was convicted and sentenced to life in an adult prison.
Stevenson’s description of Joe’s disability, past trauma, and neglect suggests that Joe’s involvement with criminal activity and with the older boys was motivated by his unstable home life, cognitive delay, and lack of direction. Stevenson reinforces the probation officer’s view of Joe as young and impressionable, and therefore in need of guidance and support. In contrast, the judge’s ruling and sentencing fails to see Joe as a child or to take into consideration his impaired developmental stage. The fact that police destroyed DNA evidence suggests that, like the police in Walter’s case, they were more concerned with securing a conviction than finding the truth.
Joe’s lawyers withdrew from his case, making no attempt to appeal. In prison, Joe was raped repeatedly and he attempted suicide. He developed multiple sclerosis, which medical experts later determined might have been caused by trauma.
While Joe’s imprisonment was framed as keeping a violent sex offender off the streets, the court, in fact, put a child within the grasp of violent sex offenders.
An inmate incarcerated with Joe writes to EJI About Joe’s abuse and his disability. Joe writes to Stevenson asking if Stevenson can “come get” him. At this point, Joe has spent 18 years in prison with no legal help. EJI files a motion for DNA testing, but their motion is denied because the evidence was destroyed. Their next plan is to “challenge Joe’s death-in-prison sentence as cruel and unusual punishment.” Stevenson drives to Florida to visit Joe. He writes that the Santa Rosa prison was one of many built during the 1990’s when the rapidly expanding “prison-industrial complex” allowed prison to “[become] the answer to everything,” including childhood emotional disturbance, mental illness, addiction, and poverty.
The severity of Joe’s situation is demonstrated by the fact that another inmate takes it upon himself to contact EJI asking for them to help Joe. Like the female inmates described in Chapter 12, this illustrates the empathy and concern that inmates can have for each other’s needs and situations. Without any legal help, Joe has been especially vulnerable to different kinds of abuse. By writing that prison, “became the answer” to social problems, Stevenson suggests that prison replaced preventative and positive social measures.
In the visitation room, Joe waits in a wheelchair in a small locked metal cage. When Stevenson arrives, the officers struggles for a long time to get the wheelchair out of the cage. They explain that the cage is used for moving all “lifers.” Stevenson hears Joe crying. Eventually, the officers manage to lift Joe’s wheelchair out. The officers high-five each other, but Joe stares somberly at his feet. When Joe sees Stevenson, he grins and starts clapping, saying, “Mr. Bryan!” During their visit, Stevenson feels like he is “talking to a young child.” Joe interviews Stevenson using questions he has written down, such as “What is your favorite color?” He tells Stevenson that he wants to be a reporter if he is ever released.
The image of a disabled man in a wheelchair crying while locked in a small steel cage serves to reinforce Stevenson’s argument about “cruel and unusual” punishment. The contrast between the officers’ and Joe’s points of view is highlighted by the juxtaposed images of the officers high-fiving each other while Joe looks down sadly. Stevenson conveys that Joe is like a lonely, hopeful child by writing about Joe’s choice of childlike interview questions and his dream of becoming a reporter.
Joe regularly writes to Stevenson, often sharing details of his day and asking childlike questions. EJI petitions Joe’s life sentence “as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.” Stevenson writes that the death penalty was outlawed for juveniles in 2005 with support from the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. EJI uses eighth amendment arguments to fight juvenile life sentences in several states. They reach out to help Ashley Jones, a teenager sentenced to life for murdering her relatives while escaping her abusive home. Stevenson writes that, for a while, Ashley had been writing to EJI expressing curiosity about the law, but without ever asking for help. Another individual they represent is Evan Miller, a teenager involved in the murder of a middle-aged neighbor who’d invited him over and served him drugs. Stevenson describes Evan, like other clients sentenced as children, as distinctly remorseful, contemplative, critical of their own and others’ actions, and capable of reform.
Through his description of Joe’s letters, Stevenson shows how much Joe values their communication. This underscores the importance of human interaction and relationships as a basic human need. The story of Ashley’s crime supports the book’s argument that past trauma can lead to crimes, in particular for juveniles. The circumstances around Ashley and Evan’s crimes suggest that adults were responsible for creating the conditions that led Ashley and Evan to commit crimes. Stevenson’s comments regarding Evan’s capacity for reflection and reform directly relates to the book’s message about the human capacity for redemption and the need for mercy.
Stevenson writes that his involvement in the cases of youth guilty of violent crimes is “ironic.” He tells the story of his grandfather, who, at the age of 86, was murdered by two teenaged boys who were robbing his house. Stevenson’s family, including relatives who were police officers, were baffled that the teenagers had done something so “pointlessly destructive” as killing an elderly man who was in no condition to stop the robbery or fight back. After years of working as a lawyer in similar cases, Stevenson came to the conclusion that understanding these crimes required understanding the history of the young people involved.
Until this point, the individuals Stevenson has discussed identifying or empathizing with have been those accused and condemned within the criminal justice system. This new information suggests that he also identifies with the suffering felt by victims and their families. His personal experience adds weight to his argument regarding the need for mercy. In this passage, he emphasizes the confusion his family felt regarding the “pointless” crime.
Stevenson explains how the 2005 ban on juvenile death penalties was influenced by recent scientific discoveries. He describes neuroscience and developmental research that indicates that adolescents are still developing regions of the brain linked to judgment, impulse control, and emotional maturity. This coincides with biological changes linked to increased risk-taking. Stevenson reasons that this developmental period, combined with trauma, neglect and other environmental problems, makes some youth susceptible to horrible lapses in judgment. Stevenson explains that the Eighth Amendment requires proof that punishment is “unusual.” To meet the standard for “unusual” punishment, EJI first challenged juvenile life sentences involving non-homicidal crimes like those of Joe Sullivan. In Joe’s case, they argued that youth are “human works in progress” and that it is a cruel and unreasonable consequence to condemn them to “death-in-prison.” Every Florida court denied Joe’s petition, and EJI took his case to the Supreme Court.
In previous chapters, Stevenson has focused on the philosophical reasons that the justice system should be more compassionate and less punitive. In this passage, Stevenson introduces the element of scientific research. EJI’s arguments indicate that they consider science to be relevant to determining the culpability and the potential for rehabilitation of young people. Stevenson combines biological development with childhood trauma to suggest that a healthy environment is needed in order for youth to make healthy choices. Stevenson’s use of the phrase “death-in-prison,” rather than “life sentence,” is significant because it calls into question the common terminology and attempts to expose what a life sentence really means in plainer terms.
The Supreme Court agrees to review Joe’s case and the case of another Florida teenager, Terrance Graham, who was sentenced to life for violating his probation by attempting robbery. Ahead of the Supreme Court case, EJI receives support from countless nonprofits and child welfare groups, scientific and medical associations, and politicians. The conservative Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, a former violent juvenile felon, publically tells his story and extends support for EJI. The case provokes media frenzy and national interest. EJI presents their scientific, constitutional, and moral arguments before the Supreme Court, and they also argue that there is a racial disparity in the application of juvenile life sentences. They await the Supreme Court verdict.
By detailing the diverse groups and individuals that backed EJI, Stevenson demonstrates how widespread bi-partisan made this case different from others. These supporters of reform may have been moved by the idea of giving wayward young people another chance at life rather than allowing them to die in prison. The example of Alan Simpson is especially powerful in conveying the widespread appeal and the capacity of troubled and even violent youth to reform and become integral parts of society.
Stevenson visits Joe in prison. The national media attention generated by the Supreme Court case has led to guards taunting Joe, which has been very troubling for him. Stevenson remarks that Joe appears more preoccupied with reciting a poem that he has written than with hearing about what happened in Washington. In the poem, Joe describes in simple language his desire to leave prison and live happily with Stevenson, whom he considers to be like a father. The poem ends with “they will see” and then the phrase “I’m a good person” repeated several times. Stevenson can’t help but laugh despite his better judgment, and Joe starts laughing with him. They laugh hysterically together, and Stevenson considers that, after everything Joe has suffered and lost, it is “a miracle […] that he could still laugh”.
Joe’s susceptibility to internalizing the guards’ taunts demonstrates his vulnerability. Stevenson creates an emotionally stirring scene by highlighting Joe’s boyish excitement over sharing his poem. The simple, open language of the poem illustrates Joe’s immense need for love and protection and his childlike thought processes. The repetition of the phrase “I’m a good person” at the end of the poem emphasizes the shame he has felt and his need to prove to others and himself that he is worthy and redeemable.