A mentally-ill Florida man who was 18 years old when he allegedly committed a string of injury-free armed robberies has been sentenced to 162 years in prison without parole, despite the fact that he had no previous criminal convictions.
Quartavious Davis, now 20, was convicted earlier this year of participating in a Miami-area armed robbery spree. Although he maintains his innocence, his alleged accomplices all testified against him. They claim he was armed with a gun during the robberies and fired the weapon at an armed customer at a Wendy’s restaurant they robbed, as well as at a dog that chased them after a separate burglary. Neither the man at the Wendy’s nor the dog was injured, and the armed man– who exchanged shots with the robbers, hitting one of them in the buttocks– was never able to identify Davis as the gunman who shot at him. It has never been absolutely established that Davis ever fired a gun.
Davis, an African-American who suffers from bipolar disorder and a learning disability, was arrested on December 23, 2010. This February, he was convicted of committing seven armed robberies during the summer and fall of 2010. He was the only one of six men charged to go to trial; his accomplices all struck plea bargains and testified against Davis in exchange for reduced sentences.
The young man, who had no prior criminal convictions, was sentenced to seven years for the first firearm charge, plus 25 years for each of the six subsequent counts under a federal law mandating that each sentence be served consecutively, or “stacked.” Known amongst prison inmates as “life on the installment plan,” this draconian sentencing scheme has been defended by many top law enforcement officials for its investigative and deterrent benefits. But the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes guidelines for federal courts, has also decried the “excessively severe and unjust sentences” that result from “stacked” sentences.
“My first offense, and they gave me all this time,” Davis lamented to a Reuters reporter from behind bars at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. “Might as well just say I’m dead.” Indeed, without any possibility of parole for the next 162 years, Davis will die in prison for committing crimes in which nobody was physically harmed. His attorney, Jacqueline Shapiro, argues that this amounts to a violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Just as the Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution bars taking away all discretion from judges in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for committing murder, so also is it cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion to force a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence on a teenage first offender convicted of lesser charges,” Shapiro told Reuters.
Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled last month in the combined cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that mandatory life sentences for juvenile murderers were unconstitutional. Davis’ alleged offenses were nowhere near as serious as murder, yet he was 18 years old when he allegedly committed them and so he is subject to the severe federal sentencing rules despite the fact that he was a first-time convict.
Florida is notorious for its aggressive prosecutions. According to Reuters, the state leads the nation in the number of juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes not involving murder, despite the fact that the Supreme Court found such sentences unconstitutional in Graham v. Florida (2010).
Recently, Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old African-American mother of three from Jacksonville with no criminal record, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for firing a gun into the air while her abusive husband attacked her. Although Florida’s “stand your ground” law justifies the use of deadly force when a citizen’s life is in danger, Alexander was slapped with the mandatory sentence for individuals who fire weapons while committing felonies.
While the Alexander case drew international attention, Quartavious Davis remains virtually unknown outside social justice circles. His is just another face among the more than 2.3 million Americans who are currently incarcerated, a rate 5.4 times the developed world average. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And despite the fact that all racial groups commit crime at roughly the same rate, blacks and Hispanics– who together number about a quarter of the U.S. population– comprise 58% of all prisoners.
Davis’ case has been appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.