The Look in Brief

’51 Years Behind Bars’: Documentary examines Tennessee’s harsh sentences for juveniles

By: - June 9, 2022 7:00 am

Almeer Nance, the subject of a documentary focusing on Tennessee’s criminal justice penalties. (Screenshot from “51 Years Behind Bars”)

A documentary premiering this week explores the lengthy sentences handed down to juvenile offenders in Tennessee, which has the longest mandatory prison time for juveniles convicted of murder of any state in the nation.

Under state law, any individual found guilty of first-degree murder must serve a mandatory 51 years in prison before a chance at release — including minors.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that kids who commit crimes, including murder, must have a meaningful chance at eventual freedom. Other states have since modified their sentencing laws to prevent juveniles from serving mandatory life sentences. But in Tennessee, where 51 years isn’t explicitly a life sentence, the laws have remained unchanged — even as advocates have argued that 51 years is a virtual life sentence.

The number of people sentenced to life as juveniles in Tennessee has hovered around 200 in recent years.

“51 Years Behind Bars,” a documentary by Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines,” explores the case of Almeer Nance, who is serving a mandatory minimum 51 years in prison for an armed robbery in Knoxville that left a man dead in 1996, when Nance was 16 years old.  During the robbery, Nance’s 20-year-old accomplice, Robert Manning, shot and killed Joseph Ridings, a clerk at Radio Shack. In Tennessee, an accomplice may be convicted of murder, even if he or she didn’t pull the trigger. Nance is now 43.

In Tennessee, 80% of youth sentenced to life in prison are Black, including Nance. That figure also holds true for Knox County, where Nance was convicted, according to the data compiled by the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP.

The Tennessee Supreme Court is currently considering a separate case challenging the 51-year mandatory minimum sentence for juveniles.

The 25-minute documentary is available to watch here on YouTube.


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.