The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that state law requiring a sentence of life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment when applied to juvenile homicide offenders. The ruling, which was announced Friday, Nov. 18, will not affect anyone convicted in Blount County.
In a case beginning February 2021, the Court heard arguments regarding the sentencing of Tyshon Booker, a Knoxville man who was convicted of first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery. According to a release from the Court, Booker was 16 at the time he shot and killed 26-year-old G’Metrik Caldwell in 2015.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Holly Kirby said the U.S. Supreme Court has made it obvious in cases such as Miller v. Alabama that juvenile homicide offenders may be dealt a life sentence. However, there must also be discretion to consider their youth and impose a lesser sentence. The harshness of Tennessee’s penalty, she said, is unusual.
“A review of sentencing statutes enacted by state legislatures and court decisions shows that there is now only one state where juvenile offenders face a mandatory non-aggregated sentence of more than 50 years for first-degree murder with no aggravating factors,” she said.
The penalty of life in prison in Tennessee is 60 years with a minimum of 51 years served. Booker was also sentenced to 20 years, to be served concurrently, for the robbery conviction. The court did not change Booker’s sentence, but instead granted him an individualized parole hearing under the previously enacted version of the sentencing statute passed in 1995 and never repealed. The ruling would allow him a hearing after he has served 25-36 years of his sentence.
Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins said that he felt the ruling overstepped the Court’s authority.
“State courts must not make broad moral and social policy judgements,” he wrote in a dissenting opinion with Chief Justice Roger Page. “Our constitution leaves those decisions to the legislative branch.”
Blount County District Attorney General Ryan Desmond told The Daily Times he did not believe the ruling would affect anyone in his jurisdiction.
“I am not aware of any juvenile offenders who have received a life sentence in Blount County,” he said. “If there are any, the cases would be from at least 30 years ago.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion was authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, and only applies to juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. The Court invited the Tennessee General Assembly to either adhere to the 1995 statute or pass new legislation to provide discretionary sentencing.