‘What does life mean’: prison sentences become focus at TN Statehouse

Published: Jul. 9, 2022 at 5:39 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - What does life in prison mean? Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee asked that question while handing down a life sentence in one of the community’s most notorious murder cases.

Billy Ray Turner was sentenced to life in prison plus 41 years on Friday. Currently, in Tennessee, a life sentence is equal to serving 51 years.

Prison sentences have become the focus of many bills in the Tennessee General Assembly. While lawmakers passed a truth in sentencing law during the 2022 General Session, not all of them are successful.

In court Friday during the sentence of Billy Ray Turner, Shelby County Judge Lee Coffee spoke to the focus on sentencing laws.

“I have no idea what 51 years, what life means, does Mr. Turner have to spend 51 years of his sentence? I don’t know,” Judge Coffee said. “We’ll find out next year, we’ll find out in five years, we’ll find out in ten years.”

Here’s how Turner’s sentence breaks down after being found guilty of the murder of basketball star Lorenzen Wright:

He was given life in prison for first-degree murder. Then he was sentenced to 25 years concurrently for charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Plus he has to serve another 16 years for a previous conviction of being a felon in possession of a handgun. In all, the sentence is life plus 41 years.

“This is an important thing because since I’ve been practicing here for the last 20 years a life sentence basically means 51 years in jail,” Chief Prosecutor Paul Hagerman said.

There have been efforts to change that requirement and decrease the mandatory time to serve a life sentence before any eligibility for parole.

In House Bill 1532 it reduces the 51 years to nearly half that time. The bill and its Senate bill found some success in committees in 2021, but the efforts to see a full vote from the Senate and House were unsuccessful.

Hagerman advocates for no change in the current sentence.

“The judge [in this case] said there was a measure at one point for 25 years or 15 years which are excessively short for a life sentence. These are incredibly violent crimes,” Hagerman said.

Some prison reform activists said a reduction in the life sentence would give prisoners incentives and reduce recidivism.

Turner’s defense attorney requested Turner’s sentences run concurrently to give the 51-year-old some hope of ever living life outside of prison.

“That incentivizes him to get an education and live a life while incarcerated with something to look forward to,” Attorney John Perry said.

After 51 years, Turner will have to serve at least 30 percent of the 25-year sentence for attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

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