In a landmark decision, a majority panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday ruled life sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional.
“In carrying out our duty to adjudicate constitutional matters, we believe that an automatic life sentence, when imposed on a juvenile killer without regard to the juvenile’s age or other circumstances, violates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment under Augth amending the United States Constitution,” the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Friday.
Justice Sharon Lee, who announced this week that she will be retiring next year, authored the landmark decision and was supported in the majority opinion by Special Justice William C. Koch Jr. and Justice Holly Kirby. Judges Jeffrey Bivins and Roger Page disagreed.
The verdict comes in the case of Tyshon Booker, who was 16 when he fatally shot 26-year-old G’Metrick Caldwell in a car on Linden Avenue in Knoxville in November 2015. Assistant Knox County Public Defender Jonathan Harwell successfully persuaded the High Court to overturn the mandatory life sentence against Booker, who was tried as an adult.
Tennessee law provides for the imposition of life imprisonment as punishment for all offenders, including juveniles, convicted of either first-degree murder or felony murder.
In carrying out our duty to adjudicate constitutional issues, we believe that an automatic life sentence, when imposed on a juvenile killer without regard to the juvenile’s age or other circumstances, violates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment under Article 8. amendment to the United States Constitution
– Tennessee Supreme Court ruling imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles convicted of murder
However, the state Supreme Court ruled that such a compulsory sentence for juvenile offenders “is inconsistent with the interpretation of the United States Supreme Court of the 8thth Modification.”
“In convicting a juvenile delinquent manslaughter, a court must have discretion in imposing a lesser sentence after considering the juvenile’s age and other circumstances,” Lee wrote in the statement. “Here (in Booker’s case) the court had no discretion in sentencing.”
However, the High Court is not vacating Booker’s life sentence, saying instead he should be considered for parole once he has served at least 25 years. He’s been behind bars since the fatal shooting in 2015, so he should be eligible for a parole hearing in 2040.
The opinion will impact other juveniles currently serving mandatory life sentences. In each of these cases, the statement said, the juvenile offenders should now receive individual parole hearings after serving at least 25 years in prison.
“We will exercise judicial restraint in rectifying this violation of the constitution,” says the OLG report. “We do not have to create a new sentence or resentencing Mr. Booker… Rather, we are following the policy enshrined in the federal constitution…and granting Mr. Booker an individual parole hearing, with due regard for his age and other circumstances.”
But the ruling means no other juveniles convicted of first-degree murder or felony murder as adults in Tennessee will automatically receive life sentences — as remains the case for adults convicted of those crimes in the state. Instead, based on Friday’s decision, judges have discretion to impose lesser sentences on juveniles.
Judge Lee: The court must do its duty
Booker was in a car with Cantrell and another youth, Bradley Robinson, when a fight broke out between Cantrell and Robinson. Booker testified at his trial in Knox County Criminal Court that he saw Cantrell grab something in the front floor and heard Robinson yell, “He’s got a gun, brother.”
“Mr. Booker stated that when he (Cantrell) saw him holding a gun and turned to face him in the back seat, Mr. Booker shot at (Cantrell) until he stopped moving,” the statement said of the Supreme Court.
Booker was found guilty of murder in the shooting and was automatically sentenced to life in prison under Tennessee law. Harwell argued in the Tennessee Supreme Court that juveniles are fundamentally different from adult offenders from an early age and should be heard individually before their sentences are determined.
In the Supreme Court decision, the judges noted that the US Supreme Court has already ruled that juveniles should not face the death penalty and that life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional. Because of these rulings, most states have eliminated mandatory sentencing of juvenile homicides.
“Compared to the other 49 states, Tennessee is a clear outlier in juvenile homicide convictions,” Lee wrote in Friday’s decision. “So much so that life imprisonment in Tennessee, when automatically imposed on a juvenile, is the harshest sentence in the country. No one, including the dissent, disputes that a juvenile offender serving a life sentence in Tennessee is incarcerated longer than juvenile offenders serving life sentences in other states.”
The Tennessee legislature has refused to change the law imposing mandatory life sentences with the possibility of parole to exclude juveniles. Bivins and Page argued in their dissent that the majority body was attempting to usurp the legislative role with Friday’s decision. But the majority panel disagreed.
“The dissent claims without any basis that we make politics by maintaining the protections of our United States Constitution,” Lee wrote. “But when the court is doing its duty and deciding on the constitutionality of a law, it is not making its own policy. The Court merely implements the policies enshrined in the Constitution.
“Without question, the General Assembly determines policy and enacts legislation,” the judge continued. “The duty of this court is to apply the law and, if necessary, to decide whether a law is constitutional. By interpreting state and federal constitutions with reasoned opinions, the courts fulfill the basic judicial function of saying what the law is. That a party can disagree with the court’s conclusion about the constitutionality of a law does not mean that the judiciary has usurped legislative prerogative.
“The dissent would keep us waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on that precise issue,” Lee wrote. “But we will not shirk our duty and ignore an injustice. Our decision today directly impacts Mr. Booker and over 100 other juvenile homicides who are or will be incarcerated in Tennessee prisons as part of an unconstitutional criminal process.”