Nashville, Tenn. (November 22, 2022) – On November 18, 2022, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that that the state’s sentencing scheme, which mandates a minimum 51-year prison term for anyone convicted of murder, cannot be applied to juveniles. This momentous ruling impacts 130 persons who were charged as children, a group that consists disproportionately of men of color. The decision declares the application of the mandatory 51-year sentence to juveniles to be unconstitutional and restores a prior sentencing scheme that allows most juveniles to receive a parole hearing after 25 years.

“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 Bergman, the legal team from Bass, Berry & Sims included David Esquivel, Jeff Gibson and Sarah Miller. The firm was contacted in April 2020 by the Public Defender’s Office in Knox County, Tenn. to support an appeal they were pursuing on behalf of their client, Tyshon Booker, who was sentenced under the mandatory 51-year scheme when he was just 16 years old. The team first prepared an amicus briefs that they filed on behalf of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and several individuals, like Mr. Booker, who had been sentenced under the 51-year scheme. Next, a team of lawyers from across Tennessee was assembled to represent nine other groups who supported the appeal, including the Nashville chapter of the NAACP. dozens of Tennessee religious leaders, juvenile psychologists and others. The team supported the Knox County Public Defender’s Office on its briefs to the court. 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 plurality, concurrence, and dissent.

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Case Background

The original 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. Tennessee’s sentencing scheme was among the most draconian in the country 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 51-year sentence. After a juvenile was convicted of felony murder, the trial judge had only one option – lock him up and throw away the key. Tyshon Booker’s case challenged whether this sentencing scheme is cruel and unusual punishment under the state and federal constitutions.

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.”  Since that time, most states have resentenced juveniles who had previously been given long sentences or revised their sentencing laws to comply with this constitutional mandate. Following the November 18 ruling, Tennessee can finally be counted among those states that have revised their sentencing laws.

Counsel and Organizations Supporting Tyson Booker

Tyshon Booker’s lead counsel at trial was Chloe Akers. He was represented on appeal by Jonathan Harwell at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office.

A number of individuals and organizations submitted amicus curiae (“friend-of-the-court”) briefs to the Tennessee Supreme Court, supporting Tyshon’s argument that his mandatory, 51-year sentence violated the Tennessee and United States Constitutions. The quotes below are taken from these briefs.

Forty–Two Congregations, Clergy and Faith-Based Organizations

(a copy of the amicus brief that identifies all 42 congregations, clergy, and organizations is available here)

A criminal justice system or sentencing scheme that fails to account for the substantive differences between the culpability of children and that of adults thus contravenes the religious teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

“Tennessee’s mandatory sentencing scheme, particularly with regard to juvenile offenders, contravenes other fundamental principles shared across [our] faith traditions, including the value of mercy, the power of forgiveness, and the possibility of redemption and restoration for those who do wrong.”

“[J]ustice that restores and redeems honors the dignity of human life, the power of mercy, and the possibility of redemption. It provides accountability for one’s actions while advocating a path to rehabilitation and reconciliation. … Sentencing juveniles to a lifetime behind bars for their actions when they are teenagers flies in the face of these principles.”

Cyntoia Brown Long [formerly incarcerated with a 51-year sentence; granted clemency by Gov. Haslam]

“Ms. Brown Long…was physically beaten, sexually abused, supplied with alcohol and drugs, forced to have sex with her pimp and his friends, and then ordered out on the street, after being laced with the drugs and alcohol, to sell her body to the adult 43 year old man who picked her up at Sonic and took her to his home. Yet, the sentencing judge could not consider any of these factors in assessing the life sentence, since the statutory scheme mandated that she spend a minimum of 51 years in incarceration.”

“As Ms. Brown Long writes in her book, ‘[t]here is hope. Hope for everyone locked in prisons physical or spiritual. Hope for everyone who doubts they’ll ever be free. No matter how far you may have fallen, that hope is still there for all who dare to believe their best days are not behind them.’ Before this Court is an opportunity to restore the hope Ms. Brown Long discusses. Juveniles can be rehabilitated.”

Children’s Defense Fund and the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth

“[C]hildren [have] diminished ability to navigate the criminal legal system—specifically their inability to interact effectively with police officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, and their very own attorneys. A mandatory de facto life sentence for children strips a judge of discretion to consider this diminished ability.”

– Emily Gardner – Communications Director, Children’s Defense Fund

Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

 “Tennessee’s sentencing scheme turns [Supreme Court case law] on its head: every juvenile offender in Tennessee is deemed to be irreparably corrupt. Statistically, only a few can be expected to live long enough to ever leave prison. Tennessee youthful offenders are entirely foreclosed from demonstrating the truth, recognized [by the Supreme Court], that ‘incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.’”

– Stephen Ross Johnson – Board Member, NACDL and Partner at Ritchie, Dillard, Davies and Johnson, PC and Michael Working – President, TACDL

American Academy of Forensic Psychology

 “The research leaves little doubt that juvenile offenders are fundamentally different from adult offenders. They will continue to develop and mature after being convicted, and the vast majority will desist from criminal behavior. Because we know this will happen, they deserve the opportunity to obtain release based on a demonstration that such maturity, and subsequent rehabilitation, has taken place.”

– Dr. Julie A. Gallagher – President, American Academy of Forensic Psychology

ACLU of Tennessee

“Among the fifty states, Tennessee is nearly alone in the way it condemns children to die in prison. Tennessee’s requirement that juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder serve at least 51 years before being eligible for release is an extreme outlier when compared to most other states and does not reflect society’s evolving standards of decency.”

– Lindsay Kee – Communications Director, ACLU of Tennessee

Raphah Institute

“The restorative-justice work that Raphah is doing in Tennessee has tangible results. Impressively, not a single young person who has completed the [Restorative Justice Diversion] program has become re-involved with the court system….Tennessee’s 51-year mandatory minimum forecloses meaningful opportunities for restorative justice. It largely prohibits trial judges from considering the transformative possibilities of restorative justice at the sentencing phase.”

– Travis Claybrooks – CEO, Raphah Institute

TN Conference of the NAACP

“Since [1995], 77% of all Tennessee juveniles sentenced under th[e new sentencing] law are Black, even though Black people make up only 17% of Tennessee’s population and 42% of Tennessee’s prison population.”

“As a juvenile case proceeds through the system, racial bias, whether explicit or implicit, can come into play at multiple points in time, including the prosecutor’s decision to charge first-degree murder and to seek transfer to adult court, the juvenile court’s decision to transfer the case, the plea negotiations between the prosecutor and defense attorney, and the jury’s decision whether to convict or acquit, or whether to convict the defendant of a lesser included offense. Consequently, by the time a case gets to adult court and the defendant is convicted of first-degree murder, the odds are at least 77% that the defendant will be Black and that the cards will have been stacked against the defendant because of race.”

Juvenile Law Center

“The sentencing court here was required to impose the mandatory sentence for sixteen year-old Tyshon, thus precluding consideration of prevailing research on adolescents and an individualized assessment of how Tyshon’s young age and race-related trauma influenced his behavior and capacity for change.”

“Tyshon Booker will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in prison for an offense he committed at age sixteen, under an unconstitutional sentencing scheme that barred any consideration of the mitigating effects of his age, race and other circumstances.”

– Marsha L. Levick – Chief Legal Officer, Juvenile Law Center