The Bitter Reality Of Tennessee's Mandatory Minimums | Crooked Media
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June 13, 2022
What A Day
The Bitter Reality Of Tennessee's Mandatory Minimums

In This Episode

  • The second public January 6th hearing was yesterday. The House committee focused on the lie that the election was stolen and how that fueled the attack on the Capitol.
  • A 16-year-old was essentially sentenced to life in prison in 1996 under Tennessee’s harsh criminal justice system. Our very own Josie Duffy Rice shares her work that follows the story of Almeer Nance, who was sentenced to 51 years in prison for felony murder despite never having pulled the trigger.
  • In headlines: Ohio pursues a ‘more guns’ approach to fighting gun violence in schools, the Supreme Court issued five rulings, and Jennifer Hudson reached EGOT status.
  • And we interview Taegen Meyer, executive director of Trans Lifeline, to discuss how attacks on trans rights have led to a spike in the number of folks looking for help.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

Follow us on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/whataday/

 

 

Transcript

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Tuesday, June 14th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, reminding you that a stock market downturn is a stock market upturn if you rotate your computer by 180 degrees.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Sorry to all the people who have lost money. That seems bad.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: But if you turn your computer upside down, your money comes back.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Does it?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, the Supreme Court issued a number of rulings, including one that’s a huge blow to immigrants facing deportation. Plus, an organizer tells us about the fear and anxiety that recent anti-trans state laws are causing in the trans community.

 

Taegen Meyer: It’s not just this one moment that is overwhelming. It’s all of these different pieces which are tying into one another.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes, yes, yes. But first, let’s do a quick info blast of what to know from the House Committee’s continuing investigation into the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Monday morning was hearing #2.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: To recap hearing #1 from last week, they basically forecasted a promise to lay out an explicit detail that Donald Trump knew his claims of election fraud were lies, that he incited the insurrection, and that he did nothing while it was happening to protect the Capitol–I guess tweeting is no longer protection. What happened at hearing #2 yesterday, Tre’vell?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: So in a hearing #2, they specifically focused on the lie that the election was stolen. Now I know some of y’all in the WAD squad like me, you only care about the highlights so here you go: two of the major bits of information. One, on election night trump ignored his team’s own data that confirmed he lost the election. Instead, he latched on to conspiracy theories about fraud that a drunken Rudy Giuliani was spouting. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, even tried to get him to come back to reality, but Trump repeatedly refused. So Trump knew he was lying and he did it anyway.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think that’s not shocking to any of us. So what is point #2?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: So point #2 is that he took those lies, he launched an effort to, quote, “stop the steal” that wasn’t actually a steal, and Trump raised $250 million off of it, mostly from regular ole Americans. This was in the aftermath of the November election, and one plea for money based on these lies was sent out to folks even just 30 minutes before the January 6th insurrection began. That led to California’s own representative, Zoe Lofgren, saying this particularly enlightening zinger for myself:

 

[clip of Rep. Zoe Lofgren] The Big Lie was also a big rip off.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I love it. Super succinct and direct. That is what you need to know from yesterday’s hearing. The next one is tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. Eastern. And as always, you can check out Crooked’s group thread featuring live reactions from all your favorite hosts that’ll be on YouTube.com/Crooked Media.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: All right. Another story we want to tell you about today involves an investigation into the extremely harsh criminal justice system in Tennessee that sentenced a 16-year old in 1996 to essentially life in prison.

 

[clip of Almeer Nance] My daughter’s grown. She’s in her twenties. I’ve been in prison her whole life. She’s never known me outside of a visitation gallery.

 

[woman speaking] You don’t want to give him a chance to become a better person for his family. 51 years before parole is ridiculous. What’s the point?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: So that first voice you heard was Almeer Nance. And his story is told in a new documentary for Al Jazeera’s series “Faultlines.” And Josie, there’s this amazing journalist who put all of this together. Her name is Josie. Maybe you’ve heard of her? I don’t know. So, Josie, can you start by giving us some background here? Who is Almeer Nance, and what was he convicted of?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. So, first of all, thank you. And also want to note that this was an amazing group effort with the Al Jazeera team. So Almeer Nance, he’s 43 now, but when he was 16, he and two others participated in the robbery of a Radio Shack. So there was Almeer and then another 16-year old named Amanda, and an adult man named Robert Manning. Ameer is Black and Amanda and Manning are both white. So Manning was the undisputed ringleader here–he had actually shot a friend of Almeer’s earlier that same day. And so at the Radio Shack, Manning told Amir to come inside. He told Amanda to stay in the car. And during the robbery, Manning shot and killed the 19-year old manager of the store, a young man named Joseph Writings. And it was just a horrible, horrible incident. Horrible for Joseph’s family. Just unbelievable. Even though Almeer did not pull the trigger, he was convicted of felony murder, which is this legal fiction that says that if you commit a felony and a person dies during the commission of that felony, you are guilty of murder. And that’s true even if you didn’t kill anyone, or even if you didn’t know anyone would be killed. And in Tennessee, felony murder is considered first degree murder.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And for that, he was sentenced to 51 years. Okay. What was the state’s rationale for such a very, very long sentence in Tennessee?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The minimum sentence a person can receive for first degree murder is 51 years. That’s 51 years before they’re even eligible to see a parole board. So that’s true even if, like, Almeer, you’re a juvenile, and it’s true even if like Almeer, you didn’t pull the trigger. So the state really didn’t have to rationalize anything, at least on an individual basis. You know, they charge him with felony murder. They convicted him, and that was the minimum possible sentence. The 51-year sentence more broadly, though, like as a law in Tennessee as a result of ’90s tough-on-crime politics, right? It became law after the ’94 crime bill as states started to increase sentencing drastically. That’s when Tennessee changed the law from 25 years to 51 years. It was just a craven move by politicians who wanted to be able to say that they were keeping people safe by locking people up. And again, those convicted of first degree murder in Tennessee, they can still get life without parole. They can get the death penalty. 51 years is best case scenario. Even for kids. Even for kids that didn’t kill.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: 51 years being the best scenario sounds absurd, but that harsh sentence, why doesn’t it make sense to you?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Well, 51 years. I mean, technically, it’s not a life without parole sentence, but functionally it is, you know? Prison is a very harsh environment. It’s not a place where people tend to make it for 50 years. If you go in after trial at 18, the earliest you get out would be, you’d be almost 70. So I think it’s just unimaginably cruel to tell a child, because that’s what Almeer was, he was a child, Hey, we know you didn’t kill this guy, but you are going to prison until you’re a senior citizen. Right? Part of the reason the sentence is cruel and unusual is because of what we know about brain development, right? Science demonstrates that our brains are not done developing really until our mid-twenties. And we know that children, especially teenagers, literally do not have the same decision-making capacity as adults, like biologically, right?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. And now you talked to the former sheriff and prosecutor who were in office during the time of this case. Now, some 23 years later, did they have any regrets about this sentence?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The short answer is no. I won’t give too much away here about what they said, but I can certainly say that neither of them seems to harbor a lot of regret, right, about Almeer still being locked up. I will say that out of the two of them, the prosecutor was certainly more introspective about his role in mass incarceration more generally. So here’s a clip of him that didn’t make it into the final story, talking about tough-on-crime sentencing:

 

[clip of prosecutor] Of course, as you’ve mentioned all across the country about this time, in the early to mid-’90s, the conversation that was ongoing was that we needed to be tougher. We needed more punishing laws and we needed longer sentences and we needed to deal more firmly with the juvenile offenders who committed a very serious violent crime. The district attorneys all across this state spent a lot of time trying to get tougher laws and tougher penalties. Nowadays, when we talk about prison overcrowding, I can confess that I am the guilty culprit because I tried my best to fill them up.

 

Josie Duffy Rice, interviewing: How do you think that’s worked?

 

[clip of prosecutor] Not very well. If you look at it today. In hindsight, I missed the point.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Wow.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. It was a moment.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Wow. Interesting. Okay. All right. So, Josie, you also talked a little bit about how police and prosecutors chose to see Almeer and Amanda, his other 16-year old codefendant, as perpetrators, rather than victims of Robert Manning, who’s the one who actually committed the murder. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. You know, Amanda got a much lighter sentence than Almeer. She got one year in prison and 22 years probation. She stayed in the car during the robbery, so that’s part of it. But I also think it’s undeniable that race played into the 50-year disparity between sentences, right? But though her sentence was more lenient, she was also treated very, very unfairly. You know, Robert Manning not only threatened them both, but he later ended up essentially kidnaping Amanda. After the shooting, he went on the run and he forced her to come along. And talking to her, interviewing her, it was very clear she was scared for her life when she was around this man. You know? She was a kid. And to me, when an adult with guns forces a child to do things, those children aren’t perpetrators. They’re victims. They’re hostages, basically. And that is something that’s really stuck with me since reporting the story. Prosecutors could have seen this for what it was: two kids living in total fear of a man who had shot their friend that day, who had reportedly beat murder charges in Chicago already, who has killed other people since he’s been in prison. But instead, they chose to treat Almeer, and I think to a lesser extent, Amanda, like murderers, too. And that is truly its own cruelty.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Definitely. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will soon be ruling on a case that involves harsh sentences for juveniles. What should we know about that? And might it help Almeer at all?

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. So for years, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly acknowledged that children are not adults and should therefore not face the same sentences as adults. Right? In 2016, the Supreme Court said that juveniles cannot be sentenced to a mandatory life without parole sentence. So in Tennessee, an amazing lawyer, Jonathan Harwell, recently argued that 51 years, which is the highest minimum in any state by a wide margin, is functionally a mandatory life without parole sentence, right? De facto life is the term we use. So as of now, the court hasn’t ruled on that yet, but that decision is expected soon.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yes, Jose, there is so much to this story, which is even more of a reason for the WAD squad to check out your amazing documentary. We’re going to put a link to it in our show notes, and that is the latest for now. Now, let’s wrap up with some headlines.

 

[sung] Headlines.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Ohio is pursuing a more guns approach to fighting gun violence, with the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signing a bill into law yesterday that dramatically cut short the training that is required for teachers to bring guns into schools. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that teachers who want to carry must undergo the same amount of training that’s required of school police and security officers, more than 700 hours’ worth. Now, teachers will need to train for a minimum of 24 hours. 24 hours. This doesn’t answer the question of whether teachers want to add shooting intruders to their already very long list of responsibilities. Overwhelmingly, they don’t, and recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans also prefer teachers to be armed with knowledge, patience, and compassion rather than semi-automatic weapons. Obviously, in the case of the new Ohio law, even the local police union expressed their opposition, with the organization’s director of government affairs saying, quote, “It’s not enough training.” Of course, the Republicans who pushed this bill through framed it as a victory for school safety. Ohio State Senator Terry Johnson said on the Senate floor, quote, “We’ve heard people say do something. Well, this is something and it’s a significant something.”

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Well, Terry, you’re right about one thing. It is something.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It is something.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And it is significant, right? In the wrong direction.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It is. Yup. That isn’t what we were thinking, Terry. But thank you.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The National Weather Service warned that right now more than 125 million people face a dangerous heat wave throughout the central and southern parts of the U.S. For example, 97 degree heat was forecasted for today in Chicago, which is about 30 degrees above average for this time of year. One of the many reasons this heat is so dangerous is because it creates dry and windy weather that fuels wildfires. And from California to New Mexico, firefighters have already been battling horrible fires since early spring. Over the weekend, at least three more fires started in Southern California. And in Arizona, on the outskirts of Flagstaff, hundreds of people were forced to leave their homes for the second time this year because of a fire that started Sunday. In other ways Mother Nature is telling us that she’s pissed off, yesterday, Yellowstone National Park announced that all entrances to the park are temporarily closed because of recent, quote, “unprecedented rainfall.” Visitors have been evacuated from some parts of the park. In a Facebook post, park officials said the closure is, quote, “due to substantial flooding, rockslides, and mudslides on roadways.” The park entrances will remain closed at least through Wednesday.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The Supreme Court issued five rulings yesterday. None of them were the really bad ones we’ve been dreading, but some were still really bad in their own way. In one ruling, the court determined that federal law doesn’t require the government to provide hearings to non-citizens who have been detained for more than six months to determine whether they can be released on bond. The case was brought by a Mexican citizen who was jailed after crossing the border into the U.S. while fleeing violence against him and his family. An official made a preliminary determination that he was not safe in Mexico and should not be deported. Then he had to wait for an immigration judge to consider his case, and after four months in detention, he asked for a bail hearing. Lower courts sided with him and he was ordered to be released. But in yesterday’s ruling, eight justices reversed the lower court ruling, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing, quote, “there is no plausible construction of the text of the relevant statute that obliges the government to provide bond hearings after six months.” This ruling will affect thousands of immigrants who are currently detained.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Oy yi yi yi yi. A prediction made nearly 20 years ago has come true in every possible way: [Jennifer Hudson singing]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Of course, that is a one, Jennifer Hudson, from her Oscar-winning performance in the movie “Dreamgirls.” And Hudson’s little gold man got some company on Sunday night, after she won a Tony Award for producing the play “A Strange Loop” and reached the coveted EGOT status. EGOT, for those who don’t know, means you’ve won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Hudson is only the 17th person in history to EGOT, and the second Black woman to achieve this honor after Whoopi Goldberg, who is technically now VEGOT–which means you’ve won all the awards and are on The View. Hudson now joins a group of entertainers that includes John Legend and Rita Moreno. And while her fellow American Idol contestants have gone on to host talk shows, run for Congress, and star in the movie, From Justin to Kelly–a classic–she is the only one of them to EGOT.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The only thing better than EGOT’ing is starring in From Justin to Kelly. That’s my personal feeling.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: You know what? Like I said, it is a classic. Shout out to our forever American Idol, Kelly Clarkson. We see you sis.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Lover her.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And those are the headlines. Coming up, the director of a hotline designed to support trans people tells us how attacks on trans rights have led to a spike in the number of folks looking for help.

 

Taegen Meyer: In any given day, we could see 500 to 600 calls coming in.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: More on that after some ads.

 

[ad break]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Tuesday WAD squad and today we’re continuing our coverage of the unprecedented amount of anti-trans legislation passing through state legislatures across the country.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, we report on these bills and laws a lot on the show as they come, but Tre’vell, you wanted to look at things from a different angle?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I did. So as more and more anti-trans bills get passed into law, it’s easy to get desensitized to the very real harmful effects they have on trans people living in these areas, particularly for young trans folks. A lot of these laws are written under the guise of, quote unquote, “protecting children,” when in reality, laws restricting how trans children can express themselves are doing the exact opposite. A new survey from the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ folks, found that about 90% of trans youth have had their mental health negatively impacted by anti-trans laws. Many of them are worrying about how they’ll be denied access to basic rights during a time when we should be celebrating ourselves.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, and you got to talk to someone about this, is that right, Tre’vell?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I did. Last week I got to talk to talk to Taegen Meyer, she is the executive director of Trans Lifeline. That is a trans-led grassroots organization and hotline. When trans folks anywhere in America call or reach out, Trans Lifeline operators provide emotional support or direct people to financial resources. I wanted to learn more about what they’ve been hearing from people because of these anti-trans laws. And I started by asking Taegen if Trans Lifeline’s hotline has seen an increase in calls that seem tied to this political moment.

 

Taegen Meyer: We definitely have consistently seen an influx of calls that come in when different legislation is passed, when we see states like Texas or Florida passing legislation which restricts the freedom trans people deserve to have–that really restrict how we’re able to present ourselves in public, how we’re able to form families, how we’re able to enter into just any types of communications about who we are. You can’t really speak to the exact numbers because of how much is tied to the legislation that gets passed. In any given day, we could see 500 to 600 calls coming in immediately within the ranges that we’ll see different legislation passed.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. Now, obviously, the conversations with the folks who, you know, answered the phone calls on the hotline are private, but can you give us a general sense of like what people call you all for, what they have been dealing with in this particular moment?

 

Taegen Meyer: Yeah, there’s a wide range of different calls that we answer. There are some people who call in and really just need someone to talk to. They are coming from small communities, they’re coming from places where they maybe don’t have too many opportunities to, you know, find social space, and just need that type of support, to know that there are other people out there just like them, who have a lot of the same difficulties and a lot of the same, you know, responses to that. And it’s really great to be able to have built those connections, to be able to have community in those ways. On the other end, we receive crisis calls, and we receive calls from people who are in emergency situations where maybe, you know, the options are running thin for them and they’re really starting to see, whether it’s legislation being passed that restricts how we can show up as ourselves, or it’s family situations which are escalating. It’s situations of harm in a relationship, which are making it difficult for someone to have a steady home life. All of these different situations, all these different contexts meld into one another, right? They really compound on one another. And so when we get a crisis call, there’s something I think that’s really interesting in particular about how we at Trans Lifeline deal with crisis, which we understand it’s not just this one moment that is overwhelming. It’s all of these different pieces which are tying into one another. We don’t try to solve people’s problems. Our operators really try to hold space for what people are really holding on to.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: You were already doing this a little bit, but can you describe how your volunteers might listen to, might coach, might support someone who is calling in and asking for advice or support?

 

Taegen Meyer: Yeah. One of the things that our operators really focus on is being able to be there in the way that is requested. We really try to let the people who call in our line lead the conversation if they’re calling in for that type of peer support, which just is asking to hold space for something that they’re holding on to, then our operators hold that space. If it’s a crisis situation and someone is trying to think about all of the different options which may still be left, then our operators are able to go to that space with them, and try to help them navigate the resources that they may have opportunities to still access, to try and think through what other pathways might be there.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. Thank you for that. So obviously some of the callers that you all are getting could be phoning in from thousands of miles away. And there’s obviously a limit to what your volunteers can do to directly support people, but I’m wondering what other kinds of, like, extra advocacy or support does Trans Lifeline provide, you know, beyond just the hotline itself?

 

Taegen Meyer: At Trans Lifeline, we also provide financial support to trans people. We do this through our microgrants program, and our microgrants program really has three different key areas that it supports trans people. One is our ID or name change program, which offers financial support to trans people who are navigating different legal situations, name change or gender-marker change, which really impact a wide range of how we’re able to access medical resources, how are able to access different governmental resources, how the TSA treats you, right? Those are really big things that cis people don’t have to think about but really impact how trans people actually engage with spaces. We also have our Inside Advocacy Program, which offers peer support and financial resources to incarcerated trans people who are seeking support with commissary or different aspects of carceral life. As they’re able to come back into social life, we also offer post-release support to trans people who are recently or formerly incarcerated.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And Josie, that was my conversation with Taegen Meyer, the executive director of Trans Lifeline. We will link to her organization in our show notes, as well as Crooked Media’s Pride Fund that’s partnering directly with Trans Lifeline for Pride Month. One more thing before we go: Crooked Coffee is launching on June 21st. The first blend is called “What a Morning” and it’s launching with a dark roast and a medium roast.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: This is actually extremely exciting. Crooked coffee is ethically sourced, carbon conscious, and a portion of the proceeds are going to Register Her, a nonprofit which works to activate and register millions of women around the country to vote, especially Black and indigenous women in underrepresented communities. Sign up now to get early access at Crooked dot com/coffee.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave  a review, begin your journey to EGOT status, and tell your friends to listen.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just forecasts of weather that is precedented like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson.

 

[together] And stop looking at the Dow Jones!

 

Josie Duffy Rice: I literally wouldn’t even know how to look at the Dow Jones. Should I admit that? Is that embarrassing?

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Truly.

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Sad and true.

 

Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzy Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.