State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker, No. E2018-01439-SC-R11-CD (February 24, 2022).
Written By: Alejandra Nawrocki, Senior Editor; Riley Jones, Associate Editor; and Elizabeth Wheeler, Associate Editor.
Tyshon Booker was 16 years old when he was arrested in the shooting death of G’Metrik Caldwell. When Booker was tried, he was tried as an adult. The trial court ultimately convicted Booker of felony murder and aggravated robbery. Booker was automatically sentenced to life in prison, a 60-year sentence requiring at least 51 years of incarceration.
After granting certiorari, The Tennessee Supreme Court held that Booker’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment because a court sentencing a juvenile must have the discretion to impose a lesser sentence after considering the child’s age and other circumstances. Thus, the court held that Booker would become eligible for an individualized parole hearing after serving 25 years of his calendar sentence that considers the “mitigating qualities of youth”.
In their reasoning, the court in Booker relied on the holdings of four United States Supreme Court cases that examined the requirements of the 8th Amendment in relation to juvenile sentencing: Thompson, Roper, Graham, and Miller. The court derived three principles from these cases, the first being that the Eighth Amendment’s requirement of proportionality means that punishment has to be graduated and proportioned. Secondly, the court emphasized that steps must be taken to minimize the risk of a disproportionate sentence when juveniles face the possible imposition of a state’s harshest punishments. Finally, these steps, whatever they may be, must allow the sentencer to take the mitigating qualities of youth into account by considering, among other relevant factors, (a) the juvenile’s “lack of maturity” and “underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” which can lead to “recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking”; (b) the juvenile’s vulnerability and susceptibility to negative influences and outside pressure, as from family and peers; and (c) the fluidity of the development of the juvenile’s character and personality traits.
The court placed special emphasis on this final point, explaining that “[e]xpert testimony about adolescent brain development showed that the systems that register emotions, arousal, and reward sensitivity do not fully develop until around ages fourteen to sixteen. Yet the parts of the brain that inhibit and regulate those drives do not fully develop until age twenty to twenty-five.” Here, the court stated, “Mr. Booker’s post-traumatic stress disorder exacerbated this disparity—making the brain’s ‘alarm system’ overly sensitive to threats, bypassing adaptive responses like judgment and executive functioning, and hijacking the brain into a state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’ Thus, a young person like Mr. Booker is more impulsive, a bigger risk-taker, and has poor judgment.”
The Booker court also clarified that they were not holding that a juvenile may never receive a life sentence in Tennessee. Rather, consistent with Supreme Court precedent, this holding allows a sentencer to have the discretion to impose a lesser punishment and to properly consider an offender’s youth and other attendant circumstances.
Prior to Booker, Tennessee’s life sentence when automatically imposed on a juvenile was the harshest of any sentence in the country. Tennessee now joins the thirty-six other states that allow juvenile offenders release eligibility in less than thirty-five years. However, the court in Booker does not specify whether the ruling applies only to juveniles who were convicted of first-degree murder, as Tyshon Booker was. Thus, after Booker, many juvenile lifers convicted of other homicide charges have been left wondering whether the ruling applies to them. As Tennessee attorneys and parole boards begin implementing the new sentencing standard created by Booker, these questions are left open and are ripe for further analysis by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Justice Holly Kirby, though concurring with the two ultimate holdings of the majority opinion, writes separately in order to emphasize just how influential the objective, national data regarding this type of sentence is.
In this vein, Justice Kirby begins her concurrence with a brief rundown of the Eighth Amendment and its applicable rulings. For instance, at a base level, the Eighth Amendment bars both “barbaric” and “excessive” punishments. Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 592 (1977). Specific to this case, Justice Kirby additionally explains the process of an Eighth Amendment analysis as it pertains to juvenile offenders. Here, in examining the depth of proportionality regarding a certain sentence, the Supreme Court demands an examination of objective data. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976). By focusing this examination on objective data, Justice Kirby explains, there is a lower risk of subjective biases from individual judges overpowering justice and a higher chance of the nation’s values/standards being demonstrated.
Specifically, Justice Kirby follows the Court’s lead in examining three separate types of objective data in her concurrence: the number of states which have rejected the practice in question, how often the questioned practice is put to use, and the general trends in the usage of such a practice. Therein, Justice Kirby finds that there is, generally, a strong national consensus against mandating sentences of life imprisonment for juvenile offenders for first-degree murders with no aggravating factors.
Under the above data categories, Justice Kirby finds zero other states which follow Tennessee’s framework of sentencing for such crimes/defendants. Additionally, Justice Kirby points to the short period of time that such change has occurred: prior to Miller v. Alabama’s publication in 2012, twenty-eight states applied similar life imprisonment statutes to juveniles. 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Today, Tennessee is the only state which proffers such a sentence. Justice Kirby similarly concurred with the majority opinion’s proposed remedy: applying the pre-1995 version of Tennessee Code Annotated § 40-35-501(h). Under this remedy, Mr. Booker would still be sentenced to a sixty-year imprisonment but with the eligibility of supervised release after twenty-five years served.
To close her concurrence, Justice Kirby addresses some of the points brought forth by Justice Bivins’ dissent. Here, Justice Kirby denies that the plurality’s opinion encroaches into the sphere of power typically allotted to the legislature; in this vein, Justice Kirby points towards The Federalist Papers in support of the idea that courts may rule legislative statutes as unconstitutional. Additionally, Justice Kirby questions the dissent’s inclusion of an analysis of Mr. Booker’s “functional equivalent” argument when the majority opinion did not need to reach this argument. Finally, Justice Kirby critiques the dissent’s lack of discussion regarding the objective data surrounding these types of sentences.
Going forward, this opinion will shape the future of sentencing in these types of cases. As such, this precedent, though bringing Tennessee into conformity with the rest of the nation, will likely see pushback as the rest of the State attempts to fall in line.
It is Justice Biven’s position that applying Tennessee’s life sentence to juveniles does not violate the Eighth Amendment as it has been interpreted.
In coming to this conclusion, Justice Bivens relies on the principle that this Court is bound to the United States Supreme Court’s existing interpretations of the Eighth Amendment. Justice Bivens further says that in determining the case at hand, the Court has a duty to follow the binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court cases, rather than “general expressions” from the case. Therefore, Justice Bivens’ analysis focuses on the specific holdings of the Graham and Miller cases and avoids relying on dicta from the Supreme Court.
First, Justin Bivens considers the implications of Graham, which was raised by Mr. Booker. Justice Bivens says that the holding from that case is that the Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide to life without parole.
Looking at the specific holding of the case, Justice Bivens says that Graham makes it clear that Tennessee cannot sentence juvenile nonhomicide offenders to life without parole. These offenders can be incarcerated for life, but they must have that opportunity to obtain release. Justice Bivens says that the Graham holding applies to (1) nonhomicide, juvenile offenders, and (2) life without parole. Through this narrow holding, Justice Bivens concludes that the Graham case does not apply to Mr. Booker because he was (1) convicted of homicide and (2) sentenced to life, not life without parole.
Second, Justice Bivens looks at Miller and concludes that it should not be extended to the case at hand–Mr. Booker was sentenced to life for a homicide offense. Justice Bivens says that the holding of Miller is that there can be no mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide, under the Eighth Amendment. Justice Bivens interprets this holding as meaning that Tennessee can impose life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender, but it must have a discretionary sentencing scheme. Additionally, the sentencer is not required to make any specific findings on the record before imposing life without parole. Justice Bivens applies Miller to Mr. Booker and poses the question of if it additionally prohibits mandatory life sentences for juvenile homicide defendants.
To answer this question, Justice Bivens looks to Tennessee courts and other state courts, which fall on either side of the issue. Some Tennessee courts have held that life sentences are unconstitutional because they are the functional equivalent of life without parole. Others have held that Miller only applies specifically to life without parole sentences. Justice Bivens concludes that the Court should remain consistent with the narrow interpretation of Miller, that it only applies to actual sentences of life without parole.
In coming to this conclusion, Justice Bivens argues that Miller’s holding expressly applies to life without parole sentences, which is not Tennessee’s life sentence. While Mr. Booker will be incarcerated for the majority of his life, under a life sentence he still has the possibility of getting out. Justice Bivens argues that Miller should not be extended past its express language. Additionally, Justice Bivens says that it should be left to the legislature, which has the authority to determine sentences. Justice Bivens argues for deferring to the legislature to make policy decisions in determining these sentencing questions.
In his dissent, Justice Bivens concludes that the life sentence for juveniles does not violate the Eighth Amendment, by relying on Miller’s narrow holding. Justice Bivens proposes a narrow view of considering U.S. Supreme Court holdings, that only focuses only the specific case holdings. If adopted, courts would no longer be able to consider dicta from these cases. Holdings would be restricted to their application of the facts of the case. In addition, if adopted, juveniles would still be able to receive mandatory life sentences under the current precedent. Without action from the legislature or a determination from the Supreme Court, these life sentences would still be considered constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.