Tenn. courts await impact of Supreme Court ruling for juveniles serving life
The ruling expands that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional
By Jacinthia Jones
The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHI S— It's unclear how much impact this week's Supreme Court ruling on juveniles serving life sentences will have in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, legal experts say.
The ruling says juveniles given life sentences for murder must be considered for parole no matter how long ago the crime occurred. In Tennessee, juveniles already have that option.
In the Volunteer State, first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence. But by law everyone — adults and juveniles — can be considered for release after serving 51 years.
"You cannot automatically get life without parole in Tennessee," said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. "When you are sentenced to life it means you're eligible for parole after a service of 51 years."
District Attorney General Mike Dunavant, who serves a five-county area including Tipton and Fayette, said the Supreme Court ruling "won't constitutionally disrupt convictions in Tennessee."
"It won't immediately or directly create this wave of cases seeking resentencing," he said, adding that he disagrees with the ruling "but it's the law of the land."
"You know what we're saying to violent criminals: 'If you commit a violent, heinous crime before you're 18, you'll get a lighter sentence.' Isn't that what gangs do? They recruit younger and younger."
A call seeking comment from the Shelby County Public Defender's Office was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
The ruling expands on the court's 2012 decision that sentences of mandatory life imprisonment without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Monday's decision applies retroactively to juveniles sentenced before the 2012 ruling.
The Tennessee Department of Corrections on Tuesday could not immediately provide the number of juvenile inmates serving life sentences without parole.
It's even less clear how the decision will affect juvenile inmates in Arkansas, which up until 2012 had mandatory life sentences without parole for youths.
Criminal defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig has worked on several juvenile homicide and death penalty cases in Arkansas and represented a member of the West Memphis Three.
Rosenzweig said in 2013 that the state legislature made a "Miller fix" in reference to the 2012 Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, which found that mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
The fix made life sentences for juveniles in Arkansas non-mandatory, but it did not apply retroactively, Rosenzweig said.
"What it (the ruling) means is they will all have resentencing trials unless the Arkansas general assembly passes a law that retroactively makes them eligible for parole," Rosenzweig said.
Arkansas Attorney General spokesman Judd Deer said the attorney general's office is waiting to learn if the inmates themselves will need to request resentencing, or if that duty falls to the AG's office or the courts.
"Exactly how that's going to impact them, we don't know that yet," Deer said.
There are currently 58 inmates in Arkansas prisons who were sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed as juveniles.
Mississippi will not be affected by the opinion "in any meaningful way," according to Attorney General Jim Hood.
"Since 2013, the Mississippi Appellate Courts have already ruled that those sentences were already to be applied retroactively," Hood said in an email.
"Therefore, any juveniles so situated have already been resentenced."
The inmates who were automatically sentenced had to request resentencing, he said. No juveniles have been sentenced automatically to life without parole since 2013 as a result of the Miller v. Alabama decision, Hood said.
There are currently 60 inmates in Mississippi serving a life sentence they received as a juvenile, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
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