Juveniles convicted of first-degree murder no longer face a mandatory 51-year sentence after the Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday found the law violates the Eighth Amendment.
It was the case of Tyshon Booker, 16 at the time of his arrest, that brought the issue to the high court’s attention. He was convicted of first-degree murder after fatally shooting G’Metrik Caldwell, 26, in Knoxville in 2015. He was tried as an adult.
Until now, Tennessee’s mandatory sentence for juveniles was the strictest in the country by more than 10 years. A person convicted of first-degree murder had to serve at least 51 years of a 60-year “life” sentence before being eligible for parole.
But under the Eighth Amendment, applying the heavy sentence to a juvenile without a mechanism for judicial discretion amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, the state’s highest court found, striking down the 1995 law to revert to an earlier version.
Tennessee out of step with nation
A 2019 investigation by The Tennessean, cited in Friday’s ruling, found more than 100 incarcerated Tennesseans serving life sentences for crimes committed as children. The law, out of step with the rest of the nation, gained attention through the case of Cyntoia Brown.
Convicted in the murder of a 42-year-old Nashville real estate agent when she was 16, Brown faced the mandatory minimum of 51 years.
In January 2019, outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency, calling her sentence “too harsh.”
In his decision to grant Brown’s early release, Haslam acknowledged her case was not unique and said he hoped “serious consideration of additional reforms will continue, especially with respect to the sentencing of juveniles.”
The ruling leaves space for judges to adjust sentences for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. It also opens the door for the legislature to review the criminal code, should lawmakers wish to lay out a new, constitutional sentencing scheme for juvenile defendants.
Justice Sharon G. Lee, who announced this week she plans to retire in August, penned the majority opinion. She was joined by Special Justice William C. Koch and Justice Holly Kirby, who issued an additional concurring opinion.
In it, she noted that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have held that juveniles are not the same as adults when it comes to both decision-making that leads to criminal behavior and response to punishment.
The law “lacks individualized sentencing, which serves as a bulwark against disproportionate punishment, and it goes beyond what is necessary to accomplish legitimate penological objectives,” she wrote.
Dissent claims court is policy-making
Dissenting, Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins argued the ruling oversteps the authority of the courts. Joined by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, he said he found the majority’s argument “sound” policy — but he argued the court should not make policy.
Both Lee and Kirby were quick to rebut his approach in their opinions.
The courts have a duty, Lee wrote, to not “ignore an injustice” in the court’s role of upholding the state and federal constitutions.
Kirby, meanwhile, defended the majority’s ruling in light of the national trend away from harsh life sentences for juveniles. She said Bivins was “shrugging off” vital information.
“This is weak tea,” she wrote.
Booker was not resentenced under the ruling; his prison sentence remains 60 years.
But for the first time, he can expect to one day, between 25 and 36 years into his sentence, receive an individualized parole hearing where his age, rehabilitation and other circumstances can be considered.
He has a chance to get out of prison before he turns 45.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Supreme Court strikes down juvenile life sentence law