Pro Bono Team Successfully Challenges Tennessee Mandatory Juvenile Sentencing Law

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that an automatic life sentence imposed on a juvenile homicide offender with no consideration of the juvenile’s age or other circumstances violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Attorneys at Bass, Berry & Sims had filed an amicus brief challenging the constitutionality as applied to juveniles of the automatic life sentence and mandated minimum 51-year prison term for anyone convicted of murder.

“The mandatory minimum of 51 years made Tennessee’s sentencing scheme the most draconian in the country and virtually ensured these individuals would never leave the prison walls,” said Angie Bergman, counsel at Bass, Berry & Sims and member of the firm’s legal team in the case. “We are grateful to the Court for recognizing the profound injustice of the previous scheme and to the many professionals, including the incredible team at the Knox County Public Defenders Office, other community leaders and unjustly sentenced individuals who helped lead the important effort to remedy this injustice. The positive impact of this decision is obvious as it, quite literally, has made a lifetime of difference for 130 people today and many more in the future.”

In addition to Angie, the legal team from Bass, Berry & Sims included David Esquivel, Jeff Gibson and Sarah Miller. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision relied on data and other evidence produced by the legal team, including a study showing how Tennessee’s sentencing laws are far outside the mainstream in the United States.

The written opinions from the Tennessee Supreme Court are available at the following links: a pluralityconcurrence, and dissent.

Additional information about the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling can be found here.

Case Details

The case involved 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 had 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 was heard before the Tennessee Supreme Court on February 24, 2021 and was 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.