Locking juveniles up for life in Tennessee

Friday, August 4, 2017

In Tennessee there are 184 prisoners who were under age 18 when they were convicted that are serving life sentences and most will not be eligible for parole until they’ve served at least 51 years in prison. Thirteen others were sentenced to serve life without any possibility of parole.

Of the 197 who were sentenced to life sentences before they were adults, 75 are from Shelby County (Memphis) and 36 are from Davidson County (Nashville).

On the list, provided by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, there are none listed as from Bedford County but there are nine that TDOC claims are from Marshall County. The Tribune has learned that TDOC has made a mistake and the nine are from Madison County in West Tennessee, instead. (The TDOC list does not include what crimes the convictions were for.)

The nine from Madison County, the date of the crime, race and their age when they committed the crimes are:

• Marcus Willoughby, age 17, African American June 3, 1996

• Ricardo Maxwell, age 16, African American, June 3, 1996

• Michael Carroll, white, 16, May 14, 1996

• Marquis Day, 17, African American, June 9, 1997

• Brent Richardson, African American, 16, March 16, 2007

• Justin Gray, 15, white, Oct. 28, 2009

• Ricky Awatt, 17, African American, Jan. 16, 2002

Seventeen-year-old Ricky Joe Awatt was angry at Junecus Bolden on January 16, 2002. A friend of Awatt’s told him that Bolden had threatened to kill his brother. Ricky wanted to “... get Bolden back … and kill Bolden,” according to court records, and Ricky told the friend “he could do it himself.”

With the help of two of Awatt’s friends, Bolden was lured to an “abandoned white house” where Awatt and his two friends beat him up. “After a few minutes,” according to court documents, Awatt’s two friends decided they had beaten Bolden“enough” and they got into a vehicle to leave. “However, after hearing five loud shots” the two “turned to see” Awatt “standing over Bolden holding a 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun with fire coming from the barrel.” Awatt got a ride home with his two friends.

Awatt enlisted the help of two other friends to drive Bolden’s body (in Bolden’s car) to a boat ramp on the South Fork of the Forked Deer River. Bolden’s car was rolled into the river. Bolden’s car and body were found in the river the next morning.

Awatt will not be eligible for parole until 2058 when he is 74 years old. He is currently incarcerated at South Central Correctional Center in Clifton.

Research on the adolescent brain has shown that it is not fully developed and that teens should not be sentenced as harshly as adults because they lack impulse control and are more likely to engage in reckless behavior without fully understanding the consequences.

According to the Associated Press, Tennesee lawmakers considered a bill this year that would have allowed juveniles to be eligible for parole after 20 years in prison. The bill was amended to make it 30 years, but the measure was pulled. The bill will be considered again next year.