Tennessee Supreme Court Declares Mandatory Life Sentence For Juvenile Homicide Offender Unconstitutional

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that Tennessee’s mandatory sentence of life in prison when imposed on a juvenile homicide offender is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the juvenile’s rights as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In a narrow ruling, the Court did not change the juvenile’s sentence, but granted him a parole hearing after he has served between 25 and 36 years in prison so that his age and other circumstances could be considered.

A Knox County jury convicted Tyshon Booker of first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery. Mr. Booker was sixteen years old when he committed these crimes. For the murder conviction, the trial judge sentenced Mr. Booker to a mandatory life sentence of 60 years, which requires service of at least 51 years in prison. The trial judge could not consider Mr. Booker’s youth or any other circumstances. Mr. Booker was sentenced to serve 20 years for the robbery conviction, to run together with his life sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentence.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted review to consider Mr. Booker’s challenge to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s life sentence when imposed on a juvenile homicide offender. In its decision, the Court explained that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that under the Eighth Amendment a judge has to have discretion to impose a lesser sentence on a juvenile homicide offender based on the juvenile’s age and other circumstances. Here, the trial judge had no sentencing discretion. The Court noted that Tennessee’s automatic life sentence of 51 to 60 years for a juvenile homicide offender is an outlier in the nation. No other state imposes a mandatory sentence of more than 50 years for a single juvenile offense. In almost half of the states, juvenile homicide offenders are eligible for release or are sentenced to serve 25 years or less; nearly three-quarters of the states allow release eligibility in less than 35 years.  

Although the Court found the mandatory life sentence unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, the Court did not resentence or change Mr. Booker’s sentence. Instead, the Court granted Mr. Booker an individualized parole hearing where his age and other circumstances would be considered. The timing of the parole hearing is based on the release eligibility in the previous version of the statute that was in effect before July 1, 1995. That statute, enacted by the General Assembly and never repealed, provides for a sentence term of 60 years with release eligibility of 60% but not less than 25 years of service. Thus, under the Court’s decision, Mr. Booker remains sentenced to 60 years in prison but after serving between 25 and 36 years, his age and other circumstances will be considered at an individualized parole hearing. This narrow ruling, applying only to juvenile homicide offenders, promotes the State’s interest in finality and efficient use of resources, protects juveniles’ Eighth Amendment rights, and is based on sentencing policy enacted by the General Assembly.

Justice Holly Kirby wrote a separate concurring opinion. She emphasized that a review of state sentencing statutes and court decisions shows there is now only one state where juveniles face a mandatory sentence of more than 50 years for first-degree murder with no aggravating factors—Tennessee. “In the entirety of the nation,” Justice Kirby said, “Tennessee stands alone.” She said she could not concur in the absence of such strong objective evidence of a national consensus, because it ensures principled constitutional analysis that is not based on subjective factors.

Justice Jeff Bivins, joined by Chief Justice Roger Page, dissented. In their view, any finding of a constitutional violation in this case goes beyond existing precedent from the United States Supreme Court. Under the circumstances, judicial restraint requires the Court to defer to the legislative branch on matters of policy.

To read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee and joined by Special Justice William C. Koch, Jr., the separate opinion concurring in the judgment authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissenting opinion authored by Justice Jeff Bivins and joined by Chief Justice Roger Page, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.