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Tennessee has the nation’s harshest sentence for juveniles convicted of murder. The state’s supreme court will decide if it’s constitutional.

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Rachel Iacovone, WPLN News
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The Tennessee Supreme Court is considering a case that could eliminate a 51-year mandatory minimum sentence for teens convicted of murder.

A case before the Tennessee Supreme Court argues the state’s lengthy sentence for teens convicted of murder is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Tennessee law requires anyone found guilty of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 51 years — even if they were juveniles at the time. Now, justices are considering whether that mandatory minimum sentence violates adolescents’ constitutional rights.

“Youth matters in sentencing,” Justice Sharon Lee said in court Thursday, at a hearing in the case of the State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker.

“Juveniles must be treated differently than adults,” she said. “How does our mandatory life sentence that was imposed on Mr. Booker treat him any differently than an adult? It seems to be totally contrary to what our Supreme Court says the law is.”

Booker was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2018, for killing G’Metrik Caldwell in Knoxville when he was 16 years old. The shooting has been described as a “robbery-gone-wrong,” though Booker claimed at trial that he pulled the trigger in self-defense during a fight.

The appeal at hand does not question Booker’s guilt in the case. Rather, it challenges the mandatory minimum sentence that would keep him in prison until he is at least 67, if he lives that long.

“This sentence extinguishes any hope of any meaningful existence — employment, family, friendship — outside the bars of prison,” Booker’s attorneys wrote in their appeal. “It is society’s final rejection of Mr. Booker, holding him to be unworthy to ever dwell and seek to thrive as an integral part of the community.”

Several U.S. Supreme Court cases have ruled that teens convicted of crimes, even homicide, should have a “meaningful opportunity” to leave prison one day. They cite a growing body of evidence that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed, which makes them more impulsive and less likely to think through the potential consequences of their actions. The justices also note the outside factors that can drive young people to commit crimes, from dysfunctional home environments to peer pressure.

Rehabilitation, they say, should be considered when sentencing juveniles, adding that teens who mature and grow should have the chance to rejoin society.

“Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,” then-Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana opinion. “If it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Those past cases have made two points clear: that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death and that they must have the opportunity for parole. Tennessee’s statute clears both those hurdles. But Booker’s attorneys argue it still fails to honor the U.S. Supreme Court’s past decisions.

Tennessee has the harshest sentence for juveniles convicted of murder out of any state in the country. While many other jurisdictions have changed their laws to ensure young people sentenced to life imprisonment can ask for parole after 20 to 30 years, Tennesseans must wait more than half a century. Even then, there is no guarantee the parole board will approve their request, or that the prisoner will survive to see their parole day.

Research has found that people who are incarcerated tend to live less long. A 2013 Vanderbilt study found life expectancy shrinks two years for each year served behind bars.

Booker’s attorneys say the law violates his eighth amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Holly Kirby pressed the matter at Thursday’s hearing.

“Surely, you would concede that Tennessee’s statute is unusual in its severity?” she asked Deputy Attorney General Zachary Hinkle.

“I would not concede that, your honor,” he disagreed. “I think it’s longer. I don’t think it’s so much longer that it’s unusually long.”

Tennessee’s debate about juvenile sentences made national news with the case of Cyntoia Brown-Long, who was also condemned to life in prison after she shot a man who she says was reaching for a gun after soliciting her for sex when she was 16. Celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West, urged the state to release her from prison.

The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017

Then-Gov. Bill Haslam commuted her sentence in 2019, and she has since become an outspoken advocate for criminal reform. She also wrote a brief in support of Booker’s appeal, along with several legal and civil rights organizations and dozens of faith groups and religious leaders.

But Hinkle maintained that some crimes deserve especially severe sentences, even when they are committed by young people. If Tennesseans decide the current statute is too extreme, he said, the democratically elected legislature should take action to change it, not the court.

“We can fairly debate, I think, what the appropriate outcome in any individualized case is, and especially with a juvenile offender,” Hinkle said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that a life was taken, and I think it is appropriate to impose a very severe sentence for that.”

The state’s argument hinges on the fact that Tennessee law allows juveniles to eventually petitioner for parole. But that could soon change, as legislators consider a bill to effectively eliminate early release for many crimes, including murder. The so-called “truth in sentencing” bill (HB2656 / SB2248) has widespread Republican support in both chambers and has already passed through several rounds of votes.

While that legislation passes through the assembly, the court will consider how to proceed in Booker’s case. They are expected to reconvene in early April.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.