Tennessee Death Penalty Vs Life In Prison for First Degree Murder
Death penalty or life imprisonment without parole ?
When a non-juvenile defendant is convicted of first degree murder in a case in which the state is seeking the death penalty, three sentencing options exist: life imprisonment, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or death. Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-204 (1997 Repl.).
A life sentence is mandatory if, at the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, the finder of fact concludes that the state has not proven any statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-204(f)(1) (1997 Repl.).
A death sentence is appropriate if the finder of fact concludes that the state has proved at least one or more statutory aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt and that the aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-204(g)(1) (1997 Repl.).
If the finder of fact determines that the state has proven one or more statutory aggravating circumstances, but concludes that the circumstances do not outweigh mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, a sentence of either life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole may be imposed. Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-204(f)(2) (1997 Repl.).
In determining which sentence to impose, the statute directs that the fact finder must "weigh and consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances." Id.
The statute does not require the finder of fact to determine that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances by any specific level of proof in order to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Id.
In recognition of the substantial discretion afforded the finder of fact in determining which sentence to impose, the statute governing appellate review declares that "a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole shall be considered appropriate if the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt at least one (1) statutory aggravating circumstance contained in 39-13-204(i), and the sentence was not otherwise imposed arbitrarily, so as to constitute a gross abuse of . . . discretion." Tenn. Code Ann. 39-13-207(g) (1997 Repl.).
A misapplication of an aggravating circumstance in a life without parole case is not a constitutional violation because there is no death sentence. State v. Harris, 989 S.W.2d 307, 317 (Tenn. 1999).
Under this statutory scheme, when a sentence is based upon one or more invalid aggravating circumstances, but at least one valid aggravating circumstance remains, reliance upon the invalid aggravating circumstance is not reversible error under either Tenn. R. Crim. P. 52(a) or Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b) unless the defendant demonstrates a gross abuse of discretion by the arbitrary imposition of the sentence.
The misapplication must appear to have affected the result, involved a substantial right which more probably than not affected the judgment, or prejudiced the judicial process.
Tennessee Code Annotated 37-1-134(a)(1) precludes a district attorney general from seeking the death penalty for crimes committed by a juvenile.
There is, however, no legislative prohibition against a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile. In State v. Byrd, 1996 Tenn, this court so ruled.
Moreover, this court also concluded that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile for a first degree murder conviction did not abridge the federal or state constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment. See generally U.S. Const. amend. VIII; Tenn. Const. art. I, 16.