Pro Bono Team Challenges Tennessee Mandatory Juvenile Sentencing Law

Attorneys at Bass, Berry & Sims have filed an amicus brief in the Tennessee Supreme Court on behalf of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and two Tennesseans sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles. The amicus brief challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee’s minimum 51-year prison sentence for children convicted of felony and premeditated murder. The case involves Tyshon Booker, who was convicted in 2018 of felony murder based on a shooting in an alleged robbery-gone-wrong when he was 16 years old.

In 1995, the Tennessee legislature changed the criminal sentencing laws to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for felony and premeditated murder to 51 years for all defendants, without taking into account their ages. In a series of cases beginning in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles should be treated differently from adults in criminal sentencing as developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds. In 2016, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court reiterated that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and held that juvenile offenders, except in extremely rare cases, should be allowed “hope for some years of life outside prison walls.”

Tennessee law has not changed in light of these Supreme Court cases, rendering the sentencing scheme unconstitutional in two respects. First, given a prisoner’s reduced life expectancy, a 51-year sentence virtually ensures that the convicted juvenile will never leave prison. According to available data, no one in Tennessee has lived to complete a 51-year prison term. Second, unlike nearly every other state in the country, the trial judge has no discretion to take into account general and specific mitigating circumstances of youth to impose anything other than a minimum 51-year sentence.

The case will be heard before the Tennessee Supreme Court on February 24, 2021 and will be live-streamed on the court’s YouTube channel. A number of individuals and organizations submitted amicus briefs to the Tennessee Supreme Court, in addition to the brief submitted by the Bass, Berry & Sims team, including the Children’s Defense Fund; Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth; ACLU of Tennessee; Raphah Institute; TN Conference of the NAACP; the Juvenile Law Center; and 42 congregations, clergy and faith-based organizations.

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