TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — In the wake of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upended sentencing guidelines for juveniles, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case involving Shimeeka Gridine, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for crimes committed when he was 14 years old.
The case is one of several that have surfaced in Florida courts since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases violate the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
Gridine, now 18, pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery after he shot a man while trying to rob a Jacksonville gas station. He was sentenced to 70 years for the attempted murder and 25 years for the armed robbery, with the sentences to run concurrently.
Assistant Public Defender Gail Anderson argued Tuesday that amounts to a life sentence.
A mandatory minimum sentencing requirement makes Gridine ineligible for gain time for good behavior on the 25-year sentence. And under Florida's "truth-in-sentencing" law requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences, he must then serve at least 85 percent of the remaining 45 years of the 70-year sentence.
"Assuming he got all the gain time he was eligible for on the remainder of the sentence, he would be 77 years old before he was released," Anderson said. "And I think that, under any reasonable construction, is a life sentence."
Anderson argued that under the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Graham v. Florida, juveniles who receive especially long sentences must also receive "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
But Assistant Attorney General Kellie Nielan said the Graham ruling provided no time limits.
"'(The) Graham (decision) has said that someone needs review sometime within their life," she told the court. "They need an opportunity for release within their life. It doesn't say when."
"Aren't we condemning him from the outset?" asked Justice James E.C. Perry. "I thought he had to have a meaningful review at the outset."
"No, Graham does not require that," Nielan replied. "And Graham only applies to the life sentences --- or, if you want to extend that to de facto life sentences, which are going to be sentences of at least 50 years. So a juvenile who is sentenced to 40 years is not entitled to any review."
Justice Charles Canady said that was hypothetical. "We've got cases here where it seems like by just about any reasonable understanding of what a life sentence is, this case falls into the equivalent of a life sentence," he said.
In Gridine's 2009 trial, Judge Adrian G. Soud of the 4th Judicial Circuit in Duval County ruled that the teen was not protected by the Graham decision "because he had a clear and premeditated intent to kill. …Just because this juvenile defendant failed in his criminal and deadly endeavor does not preclude this court from sentencing the defendant commensurate with the defendant's intent --- the same intent possessed by a juvenile murderer."
After the hearing, Anderson said she was hoping the justices would find unconstitutional the 85-percent law that abolished parole as it applies to Gridine and make him eligible for parole after 25 years.
She said another possibility is that the high court could order that Gridine be resentenced.
"That's what the district courts have been doing --- just ordering a resentencing," she said. "But that just leaves everybody in the same limbo they've been in up to now."
Since the Graham decision, the Florida Legislature has taken up bills that would have allowed life sentences for juveniles with the possibility of release after 20 years if they show signs of rehabilitation. So far, however, none has passed.