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Supreme Court orders new sentence in juvenile rape case

Thomas Kelsey raped pregnant woman at knifepoint when he was 15

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the latest in a series of cases dealing with long prison sentences for juvenile offenders, a divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered resentencing for a man who at age 15 raped a pregnant woman at knifepoint.

The court, in a 4-3 decision, overturned a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that upheld a 45-year prison sentence for inmate Thomas Kelsey.

Originally, Kelsey was sentenced in March 2010 in Duval County to two life sentences after being convicted on two counts of sexual battery, armed robbery and armed burglary with an assault or battery. The crimes occurred in 2002.

But a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Graham v. Florida, banned life sentences without a "meaningful opportunity" for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. That Graham ruling, which came after Kelsey received his life sentences, led to him being resentenced in 2014 to 45 years in prison for each crime, with the sentences running simultaneously.

Kelsey, however, sought another resentencing based on Florida Supreme Court rulings and a 2014 law that revamped sentencing for juveniles.

In Thursday's majority ruling, Justice James E.C. Perry wrote that Kelsey is part of a "narrow class of juvenile offenders" who were resentenced after the Graham decision but before the Legislature revamped the juvenile-sentencing laws in 2014.

"Kelsey argues that his sentence does not currently provide the relief specified in our previous decisions and seeks the judicial review granted to other defendants who, like him, were sentenced to terms that will not provide them a meaningful opportunity for relief in their respective lifetimes. We agree," wrote Perry, who was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.

But in a dissent, Justice Ricky Polston noted that Kelsey was sentenced to 45 years for crimes committed at age 15.

"Because Kelsey's term-of-years aggregate sentence is not a de facto life sentence, Kelsey will have a meaningful opportunity for release during his natural life," wrote Polston, who was joined in the dissent by justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady. "Therefore, Kelsey's aggregate sentence does not violate Graham, and he is not entitled to resentencing."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in the Graham case and in a 2012 case dealing with juveniles convicted of committing murders were based on arguments that life sentences for juveniles violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The 2014 state law attempted to address the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court rulings by setting new sentencing guidelines.

Perry wrote that the Florida Supreme Court has determined that the intent of the 2014 law was that "juveniles who are serving lengthy sentences are entitled to periodic judicial reviews to determine whether they can demonstrate maturation and rehabilitation."

He wrote that prosecutors during the resentencing could again seek life in prison for Kelsey, though such a sentence would require periodic judicial reviews of the inmate. But in a concurring opinion, Pariente wrote that she thinks Kelsey would effectively be "precluded from being resentenced to a term exceeding his current 45-year sentence when the sentencing court takes into account all of the sentencing factors set forth" in part of the 2014 law.

Kelsey, who will turn 30 on Saturday, is an inmate at Jefferson Correctional Institution, according to the state Department of Corrections website.