In August of 2019, a young woman named Cyntoia Brown walked out of a Tennessee prison after 15 years behind bars. Her case had caused outrage and garnered support from a number of big names who advocated for her release, including singer Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and LeBron James. While Brown was now a free woman, thanks to a clemency order signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a judge had originally sentenced Brown to far longer.
Brown, a Black woman, had been convicted of killing a man in his forties who hired her for sex. She was 16 years old and a human trafficking victim. Even though she was a teenager when she killed him, and even though she was sexually abused by an adult, the state of Tennessee still tried her as an adult and sentenced her to life.
A life sentence in Tennessee meant she would have to serve between five and six decades before she would be considered for release. While Brown was able to secure her freedom much sooner, more than 180 lifers, sentenced under the same law as juveniles, remain behind bars today.
One of them is Edward Pinchon, whose lesser-known story in some ways mirrors what happened to Brown. In September of 1998, he too was convicted of killing a man in his forties when he was just 17 years old. Court records show that Pinchon often slept over at the man’s home where he performed sex acts on the teenager. The fact that a minor can’t consent to sexual activity with an adult, and the power dynamic this creates, seems to have been mostly glossed over in sentencing.
In another court document, an academic counselor at the prison testified that he had given a now-adult Pinchon several “Tests for Adult Basic Education,” or TBEs, and “he had scored below 5th grade reading level each time.” The same document reveals that a psychological examiner said Pinchon had an IQ of about a 67, which, they explained, “falls in the range of mild mental retardation.” Pinchon himself, according to public records, always claimed it was one of the other teenagers present who shot the victim.
Pinchon, like 80 percent of juvenile lifers in Tennessee, is a Black man in a state where Black citizens make up just under one-fifth of the population.
According to Tennessee law, Pinchon will not have a chance for release until he is in his late seventies. If he is able to earn every good time credit the state allows, his sentence will be cut to 51 years behind bars. Either way, he will be a senior citizen when he finally walks out, if he’s still alive.
Land of the Free-ish
The United States is the only country in the world that still allows children under 18 to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, though over the last two decades attitudes have been slowly shifting.
In 2012, seven years after the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional for juveniles, the Court followed up with another groundbreaking ruling. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court ruled it was cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional, to sentence minors to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.
“Mandatory” is the key term here—that is, the Court did not say states could no longer sentence minors to life without parole, but rather that such sentencing can’t be the only option.
Miller allowed more discretion in sentencing. That included consideration of the particular circumstances of the crime and the child’s maturity and, therefore, their potential for reform. Studies have shown that the human brain is not yet developed before the age of 25. Scientists have proven that minors even use a different part of their brain to make decisions, meaning they’re more likely to engage in impulsive behavior, not think about consequences, and have trouble regulating their emotions.
Trauma plays a huge part in juvenile crime, where the saying “hurt people hurt people” rings most true. Research published by the Sentencing Project found that 79 percent of youths sentenced to life were witnesses to violence regularly in their homes, and nearly half of them were physically abused themselves.
That’s why the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles, even those who have committed serious crimes like murder that have caused irreparable harm, can’t all be written off as irredeemable in a system that is supposed to seek rehabilitation. Criminologists have long collected data that shows it is possible for people —particularly young people— to age out of criminal activity with the right support and resources.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at the time of the Supreme Court ruling in 2012, 28 states had laws on the books allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Many also had laws that triggered automatic life without parole for certain crimes like murder, regardless of the defendant’s age or the particular circumstances of the crime, if the juvenile was tried as an adult.
Nearly four years later, in 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana made the Miller ruling retroactive, opening the door for men and women across the country who’d received mandatory sentences as juveniles to petition the courts to reconsider their life terms. Many had already spent decades behind bars, but until then they had not had any legal reason to ever expect that they’d have a chance at freedom.
Hundreds of juvenile lifers have since been resentenced, released, and reintroduced into society as free adults, although some remain on lifelong parole on the outside. (Futuro Media, which produces Laitno Rebels, profiled one such case of re-entry in the award-winning podcast series Suave.)
But the reality is, across the nation, implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision has been far from equal.
Since Miller, the NCSL reports that a number of states have amended their laws to grant juveniles a meaningful opportunity for release—the vast majority have set mandatory terms ranging from 15 to 40 years before allowing them to come up for parole. And half of all states and the District of Columbia have completely abolished juvenile life without parole. According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, seven others have not amended their laws officially but either choose not to seek life sentences for minors or currently don’t have anyone serving.
Becoming an Outlier
Before the Supreme Court rulings, Tennessee had one of the more progressive laws—that is, among those states that allowed life sentences for youths. Minors tried as adults and sentenced to life in Tennessee have the potential for release built into their sentence after 60 years in prison, or 51 years if they earn all available credits. Before 1995, life sentences were capped at 30 years.
Now, Tennessee’s minimum time requirement is the highest in the country.
While in just the last five years, Pennsylvania, which once led the nation for the most juveniles sentenced to life, has released hundreds of them early, amended laws, and even implemented a number of re-entry programs to assist in their transition, so far Tennessee has not released any of the 185 juveniles serving life terms in its state prisons.
Many of them have been locked up for decades. According to The Tennessean, which reviewed records for every case up to 2019, the youngest was charged when he was just 15 years old.
Data has proven that racial biases, particularly against Black men and, on a smaller level, Latino men, affect the entire criminal legal system from top to bottom. The same holds true in Tennessee.
While Black citizens make up about 17 percent of the state’s population, nearly half of all incarcerated people in the state are Black, according to an amicus brief submitted in court by the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP. It was written in support of a juvenile lifer named Tyshon Booker in State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker, a case currently before the Tennessee Supreme Court that is attempting to prove that the state’s law is unconstitutional.
The numbers in the report are even more concerning when it comes to juveniles: since 1995, four out of five minors sentenced to life in prison in Tennessee have been Black.
Across the state, county to county, the racial discrepancy in sentencing is clear. One of the most egregious examples is Shelby County, where a 2012 Department of Justice report found that the county’s juvenile court’s “administration of justice discriminates against Black children.” That same brief by the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP found that all 47 juveniles sentenced to life in Shelby County are Black.
A Meaningful Second Chance
Whether juvenile lifers in Tennessee will be able to see freedom any sooner all comes down to Tennessee law. So far, courts have said that unless it’s rewritten by the state legislature or the Tennessee Supreme Court rules that the state law is in violation of federal law, juvenile lifers cannot seek relief under Miller. That is because the life sentence already allows for an opportunity of release—even if it is not available until after five to six decades behind bars.
But in Booker, lawyers have argued that a 51-year sentence is a de facto life sentence, because none of the incarcerated juvenile lifers would be able to see freedom again until they’re past retirement age—if they get out at all. They point to decreased life expectancy in prison, where access to nutritious food, safety, and necessary health care is wholly inadequate, plus the mental health toll of being incarcerated and coming of age behind bars in a maximum-security prison.
Data available from 1995 onward suggests that no juvenile has yet to meet the necessary time requirements for release, thus making it impossible to know if any of them can actually survive the time behind bars and make it to release.
“By the time you can show that you’ve changed, it’s really kind of late. Your whole life has passed by,” Federal Public Defender Michael Holley told Latino Rebels.
“It may be that you can survive that long,” Holley added, “but if you lived decades and decades in prison like that and you’ve missed all those formative years, which are all the meaningful years of developing and living a life, and you’re well past retirement age when you have a chance to get out. That’s what the question boils down to: is this 51-to-60 year sentence, is that effectively the same as life without parole?”
Holley currently represents three clients who were sentenced as juveniles under the law, including Pinchon. All of his clients have been incarcerated for at least a decade, if not much longer.
“Many federal judges in our circuit, the Sixth Circuit, the district court level and also the Court of appeals levels, have said, ‘You know, in my opinion, this Tennessee life sentence of 51 to 60 years is unconstitutional.’ But they’ve also had to say ‘I can’t grant you relief,'” Holley said.
The reasons why are complicated.
Editor’s Note: In a series of new audio stories, Futuro Media senior producer Julieta Martinelli will explore Tennessee’s law, how it has been applied, how it could possibly change due to a pending Tennessee Supreme Court ruling, and how tough-on-crime legislation threatens to dismantle any progress.
Julieta will meet some of those 185 juveniles sentenced to life, currently incarcerated in Tennessee prisons. Over the next few months, she will explore the laws, the potential remedies and those at the heart of them. And she’ll learn how race, economic status, and even politics affect the possibility that they will ever have a chance at redemption, like hundreds of others already have across the country.
This reporting was conducted with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
Julieta Martinelli is an award-winning investigative reporter and Senior Producer working on original projects across Futuro Media editorial properties. She most recently co-produced Suave, an IDA-winning podcast series about a juvenile lifer released after more than three decades in prison. Suave was named one of the top 50 podcasts of 2021 by The Atlantic. She’s reported from the jungle in northern Colombia, deep in the Sonoran desert, and prisons across the country about corruption, systemic oppression and access to human rights. Twitter: @ItsJMartinelli.