The Phoenix Flyer

The FL juvenile who changed law across the nation loses key appeal

By: - August 14, 2019 4:59 pm

Terrence Graham Credit: Equal Justice Initiative

Thanks to Terrence Graham, juveniles across the nation don’t have to spend their lives in prison if they are convicted of non-murder crimes.

But Graham remains behind bars at the Putnam Correctional Institution. And under a new appellate court ruling, he could remain there for another six years.

Graham is the namesake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Graham vs. Florida decision in 2010. In a 5-4 ruling, the nation’s highest court held that juveniles like Graham can’t be sentenced to life without parole for committing crimes that don’t involve a homicide.

Graham’s case started when he was a 16-year-old involved in a restaurant robbery in Jacksonville. He and two accomplices attempted to rob the restaurant and a manager was beaten with a pipe. Graham pled guilty and spent a year in jail before he was placed on probation for his role in the robbery.

At 17, he was accused of participating in a home invasion robbery. He denied involvement but admitted he had violated the terms of his probation. A judge then sentenced him to life in prison without parole, based on the original armed robbery conviction.

At the time, Florida led the nation in sentencing youths to a lifetime in prison after a conviction for a non-homicide crime. Here is a background story from the Gainesville Sun.

Graham’s sentence ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that sentencing youths to life in prison for non-murder crimes violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Graham, who is now 32, was resentenced to 25 years in 2012.

In 2014, the Florida Legislature passed a law that allows juveniles serving lengthy sentences for non-homicide crimes to have their sentences reviewed. The initial review takes place after the inmate has been in prison for 20 years, followed by a second review at 30 years.

Graham returned to court in 2018 asking to have his sentence reviewed after 15 years, noting that is the review period for juveniles sentenced to lengthy sentences for crimes involving murder.

His lawyer argued that it is unfair to hold juveniles who are convicted of non-murder crimes, like Graham was, to wait 20 years for a review when juveniles convicted of murder could get their review at 15 years.

But the trial court rejected that argument. And on Wednesday, the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld that ruling in a unanimous decision.

“The statute treats all juvenile offenders who commit first-degree felony offenses punishable by life that do not cause death the same — if they are sentenced to 20 years or more, then they are entitled to a review of their sentence after 20 years, and with a second review after 10 years,” the appellate court wrote.

Graham can appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

As it now stands, the Department of Corrections says Graham’s expected release date from prison is Sept. 15, 2025.

In a 2017 letter to the Florida Times-Union, Graham described his plight:

“It gets so hard in here sometimes that I just wish that I can die and get it over with instead of watching life pass me by. … Now I just want to live long enough to get out of here and show everyone that I am a man that was dealt a bad hand in life but overcame it and can be someone positive and productive in society,” he wrote.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.