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Joe Sullivan didn’t have the easiest of childhoods. While still very young, he suffered the neglect of his mother and the physical abuse of his father. By the time he turned ten, Joe’s family disintegrated into chaos and began moving from place to place – to more than ten addresses in three years. Because of his mental disabilities, Joe was easily led by other boys, and because he lived mostly on the streets, he fell into petty theft and other small property crimes.
Running with two older boys, Joe broke into an empty house where one of the others stole some jewelry, and then left. Later that day, the woman who lived there came home and was attacked by an assailant she never saw clearly.
The attack was brutal, violent, and shocking. Police apprehended the two older boys who pinned the guilt on thirteen-year-old Joe. Joe turned himself in and admitted participating in the burglary, but adamantly denied knowing anything about the rape. Relying on the self-serving testimony of the two older kids, prosecutors indicted Joe as an adult and, at thirteen, Joe was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
Housed among adult inmates, Joe was repeatedly abused and sexually assaulted, and several times attempted suicide. When he developed multiple sclerosis, doctors suggested that his prison trauma probably triggered the disease.
Confined to a wheelchair, horribly mistreated, and condemned to die in prison at the age of thirteen, the childlike, emotionally disabled Joe faced a dreary future in a bleak Florida prison.