It’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment to Sentence a Teenager to Die in Prison

Does the Constitution allow a teenager to be sentenced to die in prison for a pair of armed robberies committed on a single day, in which no one was seriously injured?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it’s unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile who did not commit homicide to life in prison without parole, but the Missouri courts say this rule doesn’t apply if the juvenile is sentenced for multiple crimes. The ACLU is taking this issue to the Supreme Court on behalf of Bobby Bostic, who was sentenced to 241 years in prison for non-homicide crimes he committed when he was 16.

On Dec. 12, 1995, Bobby and an 18-year-old friend committed a pair of armed robberies. Two people were shot at, but no one was seriously injured. Prosecutors charged Bobby with 18 separate counts, and a jury found him guilty on all of them.

 The trial judge was absolutely clear during Bobby’s sentencing: Bobby would never be free again.

“You made your choice. You’re gonna have to live with your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice because, Bobby Bostic, you will die in the Department of Corrections,” Circuit Judge Evelyn Baker told the teenager. “Do you understand that? Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201. Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

The state probation and parole board eventually issued Bobby a parole eligibility date of 2091, when he will be 112 years old. Today, Bobby remains in prison with no hope of release.

In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment “prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” While the decision does not guarantee that a child who does not commit homicide will eventually be released, it requires that the state provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The Missouri Supreme Court and three other state high courts believe Graham only applies when a state uses the magic words “life without parole.” They ruled that there is no constitutional problem with sentencing a child who has not committed homicide to die in prison as long as the child was convicted of more than one crime and sentenced to consecutive term-of-year sentences.

But the constitutional flaw in the sentence imposed on Terrance Graham, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, was not that it was formally called “life in prison without parole.” It was that it denied a child who did not commit homicide “any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society.”

That’s exactly the flaw in Bobby Bostic’s sentence.

State prosecutors have substantial leeway in how they charge crimes. Here, the events of a single day led to 18 separate counts for robbery, armed criminal action, and other offenses. States should not be allowed to evade the principle set forth in Graham by sentencing a child to “100 years without parole” instead of “life without parole.” Similarly, they should not be able to slice one incident into many sub-offenses and sentence a child to consecutive term-of-year sentences that guarantee he will die in prison. In fact, the Supreme Court has already recognized that such a sentence is practically equivalent to “life without parole.” That proposition should make a decision in the Bostic case easy.

As Graham held, leaving a child who did not commit homicide to “die in prison without any meaningful opportunity to obtain release, no matter what he might do to demonstrate that the bad acts he committed as a teenager are not representative of his true character, even if he spends the next half century attempting to atone for his crimes and learn from his mistakes,” is cruel and unusual punishment.

Bobby Bostic should get a chance to show that crimes he committed as a kid do not define him. The Eighth Amendment demands nothing less.

Add a comment (26)
Read the Terms of Use

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Give him ten years in prison and twenty in exile. That ought to fix his wagon.

Anonymous

Your screen name shows what kind of a person you are.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Next time I will be Dr. Timothy Leary. Is that OK with you?

Anonymous

I agree and the judge needs removed from the bench for same amount of years she witch sentenced 16 year old to

Brendan

That's crazy! How about we rehabilitate. A punishment should fit the crime. Good work ACLU!!!

Anonymous

And the punishment DOES fit the crime. Or in this case, crimes. You say "Good work ACLU", I say "Good LUCK ACLU" - cuz I guarantee they're going to lose!

Anonymous

He must be black

Anonymous

Crazy part, the judge was a black female. How does anyone do that to a kid?

Anonymous

It was just before Christmas when Bostic and another young man held up a group delivering gifts to the needy in north St. Louis.

Nobody was significantly injured, although two victims easily could have been killed by shots that were slowed by their heavy winter coats before the bullets broke skin.

Bostic, 16, and his accomplice, Donald Hutson, 18, later kidnapped a woman, put a gun to her head, fondled her, stole from her, then dumped her back on the street.

Chris Pezzimenti, 26, handed over $500 before Bostic fired a bullet into his side, authorities said.

It was the same with Leo J. Matthew, 21, who was shot by Hutson after surrendering his wallet.

It was pure luck that the bulk of their winter coats protected them from more than the cold. Both walked away with barely a nick.

An hour later, the duo put guns to the head of a woman, 28, also delivering gifts, about a block away. Bostic drove her car while Hutson kept his gun on her. At one point, according to court records, Hutson reached into the woman’s pants, purportedly searching for money. Finally, at Bostic’s urging, they released her.

[The judge] noted his history of arrests: assault, for which he was on probation, and an array of juvenile offenses that had not been prosecuted. She reminded him that had the bullet strayed right or left, he might have been facing a death sentence, then still possible for juveniles.

Anonymous

Still not worth a lifetime of imprisonment at 16

Pages

Stay Informed