Tennessee Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Murderers

Tennessee State Supreme Court said that mandatory life sentences for minors convicted of murder are unconstitutional, according to a recently decided case.

In a case called State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker No. E2018-01439-SC-R11-CD the state’s highest court says sentencing juveniles to life in prison for murders committed as minors is cruel and unusual punishment.

According to an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, who recently made the news by announcing her upcoming retirement:

Tyshon Booker challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee’s mandatory sentence of life imprisonment when imposed on a juvenile homicide offender. In fulfilling our duty to decide constitutional issues, we hold that an automatic life sentence when 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. Mr. Booker stands convicted of felony murder and especially aggravated robbery—crimes he committed when he was sixteen years old. For the homicide conviction, the trial court automatically sentenced Mr. Booker under Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-35-501(h)(2) to life in prison, a sixty-year sentence requiring at least fifty-one years of incarceration.

“But this sentence does not square with the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment,” the opinion continues. “When sentencing a juvenile homicide offender, a court must have discretion to impose a lesser sentence after considering the juvenile’s age and other circumstances. Here, the court had no sentencing discretion. In remedying this constitutional violation, we exercise judicial restraint.”

The opinion itself has no impact on Booker’s sentence. He will still be required to serve the sentence imposed upon him, barring appeals that could use the Court’s decision as an argument to free him or reduce his sentence.

Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that his colleagues were engaged in judicial activism.

“I respectfully dissent from the result reached by a majority of the Court today. Quite frankly, I find the policy adopted as a result of the plurality opinion of Justice Lee and the concurring opinion of Justice Kirby to be sound,” he said.

“However, it is just that. It is a policy decision by which the majority today has pushed aside appropriate confines of judicial restraint and applied an evolving standards of decency/independent judgment analysis that impermissibly moves the Court into an area reserved to the legislative branch under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.”

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Pete D’Abrosca is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Pete on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Background Photo “Tennessee Supreme Court” by Jon698. CC BY-SA 4.0.


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2 Thoughts to “Tennessee Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Murderers”

  1. Joe Blow

    The “Supreme” Court really blew this one. A murderer is a murderer is a murderer. The cruel and unusual part is that a murderer can be set free.

  2. Russell Bladen

    I knew at 16 years of age not to kill people, in fact by 5 years old i knew that. He should rot and die in prison.