Why Tennessee juveniles sentenced to life for murder now have path to release

Posted at 2:36 PM, Nov 21, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — They were 15, 16 and 17-year-olds tried as adults and sentenced to life in Tennessee prisons.

But no more.

Starting this week, these violent juvenile offenders have a chance at parole — the result of a decision from the state's highest court. This stunning decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court brings a sea change.

Right now, there are 200 inmates sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, who now have a chance at early release. This would affect inmates like Vana Mustafa, convicted of murder five years ago at the age of 17.

"It will affect him because right now he had no opportunity to be released," said Mustafa's attorney David Raybin.

He said his client would have been eligible after 51 years at the age of 68. Now he could be out by age 42 because of the ruling allowing parole after 25 years.

"Tennessee, up until Friday, had the longest life sentence for juveniles anywhere in the country," said Raybin.

The justices deemed 51 years for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

It was a flat sentence that failed to take into account mitigating factors.

"Of course, there's horrible murder for someone who should be sentenced to life in prison no matter how old, but there are others with mitigation like youth or mental illness," said Raybin.

Cases Raybin says like Mustafa, who shot and killed a man who attacked him during a drug deal.

He says the stage was set for the court to overrule juvenile life sentence with the Cyntoia Brown case.

Convicted of murder, her life sentence was commuted because she was a victim of human trafficking.

"Cyntoia Brown's case moved the needle. That was the frist in Tennessee with a lot of mitigation here," said Raybin.

This decision from the Supreme Court means there are inmates serving life in prison who can apply for parole.

The law allowing life sentences for juveniles took effect in 1995.

That was more than 25 years ago, and Raybin is now hearing from several inmates convicted then who want his help seeking parole.

The decision — as always — will be made by the parole board, and it's important to remember parole is not always granted.

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