by Sharon Rondeau

(Nov. 1, 2016) — A letter received on Thursday from a Tennessee prison inmate highlighted the inconsistency between Tennessee state law and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued in 2012 and this past January, respectively, regarding life sentences for those who were under the age of 18 when they were charged.

On January 25, NBC News reported that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana affected 2,341 inmates nationwide, while WHNT reported that the number is “about 2000.”

Montgomery was an amplification of the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama in which the court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.  The Montgomery case made that decision retroactive.

In his letter, dated October 24, Turney Center Industrial Complex (TCIX) inmate Marquis Day wrote, “I am a juvenile lifer. I’ve been incarcerated for 19 consecutive years, I was charged at 17 years old. I have exhausted all of my court remedies that could have possibly resulted in a lesser sentence from a technicality. However, I decided to write a Bill to submit to the Senate, which actually got in, but it didn’t receive the votes needed to be enacted.”

In late March, the Tennessee legislature concluded its session without passing either of two proposals which would have changed existing law to allow for a shorter mandatory sentence for those convicted as juveniles to life sentences with the possibility of parole.  Had it become law, the bill would have reduced the state’s 51-year requirement to 30 years of mandatory incarceration before being eligible for parole.

The “51-year” requirement is considered by some to be “The New Life Without Parole,” meaning “life sentence.”  According to a convict who committed a crime at age 18, a 1995 change in Tennessee’s sentencing laws created a situation in which “men and women who commit certain crimes on an arbitrarily composed list, regardless of past criminal history or any other mitigating factors, no longer have any chance of consideration for parole and at least 85% of the sentence must be served regardless of how many sentence credits (good behavior credits) the inmate receives. Some of the legislators who first discussed the bill on the floor spoke of the law as a “three strikes” law. They can be heard on the tape recordings of the sessions, available at the state archives located in downtown Nashville. In Tennessee, we threw out the last two strikes and decided it was best to impose the maximum possible sentence, even for first time offenders and juveniles, a major change in policy regarding the hope of rehabilitating an offender or salvaging his or her life in any way.”

Many believe that a sentence of life without parole for juveniles is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” a factor in the high court’s recent decisions.

Day wrote that 183 juvenile “lifers” are currently in Tennessee prisons, which was affirmed by a report published in The Tennessean in July.  “This isn’t a strictly personal dilemma; this is the plight of almost 200 juvenile lifers in our state.  I want to say it’s 183 of us as of 2015,” Day wrote in his letter.

“Since 2014, at least 24 states have enacted new measures requiring an automatic review of life sentences imposed on teens after they have served a certain number of years,” The Tennessean wrote in its July report.

Iowa and Connecticut are among those states which have altered their laws in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery, while in 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found juvenile life sentences without parole to be unconstitutional and ordered that individuals in that category receive parole hearings.

According to a post at The Sentencing Report dated July 1 of this year, “the choice to allow teenagers to receive the harshest available sentence is not shared among all states. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have banned life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles; in a handful of other states, no one is serving the sentence.”

The concept of “adolescent brain science” contends that children lack the maturity and brain development to make decisions which an adult might make in a highly stressful situation.  Whether or not “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption” was the foundation of five Arizona youths’ crimes is under consideration by Maricopa County District Attorney William Montgomery.

Documentarian Dan Birman has produced a film about the issue of juvenile life sentences in Tennessee as featured in a three-part series.  In a written piece explaining his reasons for producing the film, Birman wrote, in part:

Tennessee’s no-nonsense laws are understandable. No one condones violent criminals of any age. But juvenile offenders are children. Sometimes kids get caught in situations they cannot manage. A combination of bad judgment and immaturity can lead to terrible outcomes. In the state’s approach to juveniles, I wonder if in some cases, it’s turning a blind eye to its children.

Tennessee weighs juvenile offenders who commit violent crime (and are transferred to adult court) with the same criteria as adult offenders. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes a distinct difference between children and adults.

As The Post & Email has reported, Tennessee has ignored two U.S. Supreme Court rulings – Hobby v. U.S. and Rose v. Mitchell – in which the court ruled that bias or the appearance of bias or “abuse” should be avoided in the appointment of a grand jury foreman.  Tennessee lawmakers have permitted criminal court judges to hand-pick grand jury foremen from outside of the jury pool for approximately a century; such foremen are then reappointed for as many terms as the judge wishes, sometimes stretching into decades.

In many cases, records of the appointments of grand jury foremen are not maintained or obscured from the public.

An 1883 Tennessee Supreme Court case demonstrates that at that time, the grand jury foreman was chosen “from the venire.”

In 2012, Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III discovered a set of 1984 Tennessee laws which commanded the county criminal courts to cease operation and to combine into multi-county districts from which jurors would be selected.  While the counties formed the “Judicial Districts” designated by the legislature, the county criminal courts continued to empanel their own grand and trial juries and operate independently.

Day’s complete letter follows.

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