The Impact of Tennessee's 51 Year Mandatory Minimum Law
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Good to have you with us. 1996, 2 years after the Federal Crime Bill that accelerated mass incarceration in the United States. That was the year Almeer Nance, a 16-year-old boy was involved in a robbery in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here is journalist Josie Duffy Rice describing what happened.
Josie Duffy Rice: At 16, Almeer Nance went to a RadioShack with two other people. One was another 16-year-old girl, a white girl who stayed in the car. The other was a 20-year-old man who had really been terrorizing Almeer's neighborhood for months. He had just beat murder charges in Chicago. He had shown up that day and flash a pistol to Almeer and said "Follow me." He had shot one of Almeer's friends earlier that day.
Almeer followed him into a RadioShack and they held up the RadioShack. In the process of holding up the RadioShack the older manRobert Manning shot and killed the manager of the RadioShack Joseph Ridings, a very execution style, just a horrible, horrible killing. As a result, Almeer Nance was convicted of felony murder and he was sentenced to a minimum of 51 years in prison in Tennessee.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Felony murder laws hold people responsible for murder if they were involved in a violent felony such as robbery, arson or kidnapping that ultimately led to someone's death. Under Tennessee law, felony murders are considered first degree murders. Tennessee changed its laws in 1995 so that regardless of age, anyone convicted of first degree murder received a mandatory minimum sentence of 51 years before even the possibility of parole.
According to Nashville's public radio WPLN, this law is the most severe sentencing policy in the nation for juveniles convicted of murder. What this means is that as a result of his conviction, Almeer Nance has now been in prison for the majority of his life. Josie Duffy Rice and producer Jeremy Young reported on Almeer's story in 51 years behind bars, a new report from Al Jazeera English's Fault Lines. Here is Almeer during the report speaking about his sentencing.
Almeer Nance: They know that I didn't shoot this person. This man Joseph Ridings. I like to say his name, I don't like to just say the person or the victim. I like to dignify the man by at least saying his name, but they know I didn't kill this man.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josie also talked with Tim Hutchinson. He was the sheriff for Knox County Tennessee at the time of Almeer's conviction.
Josie Duffy Rice: What would your response be to people who say this isn't really working. Locking people up doesn't actually solve any problems.
Tim Hutchinson: Well, for those who say it doesn't really solve any problems by locking these juveniles up for a long period of time, Almeer Nance hadn't been involved in any more violent crimes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josie, talk to me about what it means to lock up juveniles for decades.
Josie Duffy Rice: The complicated and the misleading fiction we tell ourselves about a system like this is that Almeer Nance being in prison for 51 years is somehow justice for Joseph Ridings being dead. There is no justice for Joseph Ridings being dead. Almeer Nance didn't pull the trigger. Robert Manning did, but there's no justice to losing a child, to losing a loved one being shot in a RadioShack. I think that's a separate question from how we should think about sentencing a person who was 16 when they committed this crime did not actually pull the trigger. Should we be condemning them to their entire life being spent in prison?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Almeer, 16-years-old did not pull the trigger, 51 years. You said there was also the actual trigger man and a teenage girl. What happened with both of them?
Josie Duffy Rice: The trigger man got life without parole and he is serving his sentence in Tennessee as we speak. He has also committed at least one additional murder while he's been serving his life without parole sentence in prison.
The other person involved was a 16-year-old girl, Amanda and she stayed in the car. She got a one year sentence and 22 years probation. It just begs the question of if neither of them pulled the trigger, why are their sentences so different. I think it also presents a question of, were they actually really victims. If you're a prosecutor, do you choose to think about this as these were two kids under the pressure, under the fear of this adult and they should be treated as such.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why 51 years. Why didn't the young woman get that same time? What were the differences that at least the Judge or Jury saw there?
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. Well, the answer to why 51 years is politics. This used to be a 25 year sentence until the mid '90s about the time of the '94 crime bill, about the time of the intense tough on crime ratcheting up sentences that we saw nationwide in the mid '90s. That's when that sentence went from 25 years to 51. There is no scientific reason for that. There's no proven deterrent reason for that. There is no technical reason for that. It's just politics. It's just an outrageous sentence to give a juvenile. It's just the Tennessee's politicians in the '90s playing that game.
The very obvious difference is that Almeer Nance was a Black kid and Amanda was a white girl. I think that is a clear difference in terms of who garnered more sympathy from the judge, from the jury et cetera. I think it's also worth noting that she didn't actually leave the car. That's not a completely irrelevant fact at all, but it is definitely true that the difference in their conduct in that those couple of minutes is not a 50-year spread of difference. It doesn't account for the drastic difference in sentences.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was struck that Almeer has a daughter and has basically spent her entire life in jail?
Josie Duffy Rice: Her entire life. Yes, she was born after he went in. It's deeply tragic. He actually had another son as well who passed away in a motorcycle accident just a few years ago. He's never really been able to be a physically present father for his kids, but he has been a father to them. He and his daughter talk every day. They're extremely close. He plays as much of a fatherly role as he can in her life, but I think it's just deeply tragic to see the way that a sentence like this ripples out not just to his life, but the lives of his daughter who's 23 now and wasn't born when he went in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now a little context here. In recent decades the Supreme Court repeatedly has placed limits on sentencing for juvenile offenders. Ruling that executing minors and sentencing them to mandatory life without parole both constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The court also has held that minors can only be sentenced to life without parole for homicides. This is in part because research shows that adolescents brains are still developing and the court has said that juvenile offenders must have a "Meaningful opportunity to be released from prison one day."
The mandatory minimum of 51 years for first degree murder remains on the books in Tennessee and the Tennessee conference of the NAACP says 77% of juvenile offenders sentenced under the mandatory minimum law since its passage have been Black. Although just 17% of the state's population is Black. This Tennessee law, is it still in effect?
Josie Duffy Rice: It is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How does it compare to other states?
Josie Duffy Rice: The Tennessee law, the reason it's especially notable is because it's a mandatory sentence. If you are convicted of felony murder, you get this sentence. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Compared to other mandatory sentences it's at least 10 years more than the next highest state. Most states are somewhere between 25 and 35 years. Tennessee is double that. As far as mandatory sentence it's right outside of the standard deviation of this sentences.
It's also worth noting that there are people across this country, hundreds possibly thousands of people across this country serving life without parole sentences for crimes that they committed as juveniles. People who go in as kids and are told they will never ever, ever under any circumstances leave prison. This is the longest mandatory sentence, but it's not the longest sentence being served by someone who was a juvenile at the time of the crime. It's so outrageous and yet it's still not the most outrageous possible sentence which is mind-blowing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to admit, three weeks ago if we'd had this conversation. If I had watched your film three weeks ago. I think I would've been right with you in that sense of this is clearly outrageous. I think I have enough of a policy commitment that I still am in a place where this is clearly outrageous.
I have to say I had a different gut reaction watching it this week, following two 18-year-olds. One of them had only been 18 for about a week, who committed heinous crimes in the past two weeks. The white supremacist killer in Buffalo, and then of course, the 18-year-old who shot and killed 19 children and two adults in a fourth-grade classroom in Uvalde.
Typically, I know everything we know about juveniles and given that these young people were only not Juvenile by the slightest bit, just 18. It would be hard for me to feel bad, I must say, if the Buffalo shooter ends up with 51, plus 51, plus 51, plus 51. I am still just in my gut having a little trouble reconciling that we would not at least have available to us the possibility that young people, sometimes even if they are young people do monstrous things.
Josie Duffy Rice: I think that makes sense. I think that feeling makes sense. I had that feeling about Buffalo in a way it's actually very notable, that so many of these mass shootings are committed by young people. I think that presents a really important question, because everything can be true. It is true that a teenager can commit a very, very serious crime that in its effects differs, not at all, whether they're a teenager or an adult. It doesn't matter if it's an adult or a teenager who kills those 10 people in the grocery store, or those 19 kids in the classroom, they're still dead.
On some level I think our instinct is to think, which I understand if the crime is heinous, the other stuff is irrelevant. I think what I'm grappling with is that, it's also true that what we know about teenagers, about youth and about kids is that they don't have the brain development. They don't have the skills, they don't have the impulse control to make the best decisions.
I know that I make better decisions. Hopefully, now that I did half my life ago, but I think that also leads to another question, which is, if we know that, why are these kids getting AR-15s? Why are these kids being given the tools to commit, to cause so much harm? Why are we not working on preventing these actual acts from happening rather than punishing them on the back end?
If we know that this is true about kids, their brains, their ability to make decisions, how is it that we are allowing them to get their hands on semi-automatic weapons? You think about what's made headlines in the past year. We're talking about Uvalde, we're talking about Buffalo. We're talking about Kyle Rittenhouse, who became a celebrity for killing someone as a child? I think there's a deeper rot here and a deeper failure on a wider scale that can't just be solved through punishment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick break. More with Josie Duffy Rice on mandatory minimums for juveniles in just a moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've been talking about Almeer Nance. He was convicted of felony murder for a robbery he participated in when he was 16 years old. Almeer was sentenced to 51 years in prison. That's despite the fact that another man, Robert Manning was the one who shot and killed an employee during the robbery. Journalist Josie Duffy Rice looked into Almeer's case for 51 years behind bars. That's a new report from Al Jazeera English's Fault Lines.
In her reporting, Josie spoke with several officials who take little issue with sentencing juveniles to lives of incarceration. Here's part of a conversation she had with current Tennessee state Senator John Lundberg.
John Lundberg: These are heinous murders and acts. The unfortunate part, I think we have to admit, and we may not like it as a society, but there are some folks who are just born bad, and some of those people probably best that you're behind bars.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sentiments like this are hard to reconcile with other moments in the report that show the relationship forged between Almeer and his family during his decades of imprisonment.
Almeer: Society may say, throw those guys away, but I don't have to feel that way about myself, the family day, they never want to give up on you. For what time I have left I choose to try to be the best version of myself that I can be.
Speaker 5: Hello. Hey, Almeer. We got everybody, we and got baby Meer. Yes.
Almeer: I try to be as much a source of support and inspiration from a dark place. I try to shine light even from here, if I can for them.
I love y'all man.
Speaker 5: I love you too.
Almeer: I miss y'all man.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You spent a lot of time with Almeer during your reporting. What has been the effect of these decades of incarceration?
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, it's a really interesting question because obviously I didn't know him when he went in 23 years ago, but it is so clear that what Almeer is in his mid 40s now, and has the wisdom of someone in their mid-forties. He's a different person than he was when he went in. Since he's been in, he's lost his son, he's lost a brother. He's seen his mom get clean from afar. He's watched his daughter grow up.
The truth is that for people serving these decades long-sentences, especially who go in very young, the implication of sentencing someone to 51 years before they can even see a parole board is that, they're not going to change, but then you meet them, you see how they've grown up. You see them as adults and not the 16-year-old who you see testifying on the stand.
It just is a reminder that people change. People change.
Almeer did not pull the trigger, but I don't think he would dispute the fact that he wishes he had made better decisions that night. I think he's spent 23 years sitting in a cell thinking about that day in and day out as the rest of the world goes on outside. Spending time with him was a real gift because I got to see firsthand how he has taken this sentence and tried to spend this time making himself better, growing, being the kind of person he wants to be, and I found that pretty inspiring.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What about the officials who were involved in sentencing him? Are they any different now a couple of decades in?
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, it's a great question. We interviewed the man who was DA during the time of Almeer's case. He was very clear that he had actually lobbied for the increase in this law from 25 to 51 years. He lobbied for harsher laws during his tenure as decade long plus tenure. What he told us was that in a lot of ways that was a mistake. He sees now the aftermath of the 1990s epidemic of mass incarceration. He sees now how our approach to punishment and harsh sentences has not always resulted in the changes and the improvement and the safety that he expected it to.
I found that he wasn't necessarily regretful of this particular case, but he did seem to be somewhat regretful of his approach to this role as prosecutor overall. He did feel differently, but we talked to two other elected officials, the former sheriff and a current state Senator who not only have no qualms about sentencing children who didn't pull the trigger to 51 years, but think that those sentences should maybe even be longer. I think the reflection that has been done by people who are in charge of then, and now, it varies , I'll say that. It definitely varies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do you think is next for juvenile sentencing?
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. If you had asked me this just a few years ago, I would've said we were very close to a Supreme Court ruling that juvenile life without parole sentences were unconstitutional, and then the Supreme Court changed pretty drastically. Now it looks like we could be decades out from that truly, so that I think is very disappointing. There's a lot of movement including among Tennessee advocates, and then the state Supreme Court there.
In different states across the country, I think there's a lot of movement around the need to acknowledge that just because someone has done something extra bad, it doesn't make them extra adult. That means we really have to grapple with how we provide structure and safety to children and ensure that they don't have the ability to make decisions like the one we saw in Uvalde, make these decisions like the one we saw in Buffalo, and also suffer the punishments that we're seeing Almeer suffer as we speak.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josie Duffy Rice is a Harvard Law School graduate and journalist who covers the criminal legal system. Josie, thanks so much for being here.
Josie Duffy Rice: Thank you.
[00:20:58] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.