Knoxville's Almeer Nance is in his 26th year of serving a 51-year prison sentence.
He's just 43 years old.
Nance was 16 when he was given a mandatory sentence of 51 years - plus an additional 25 years - for participating in a 1996 armed robbery that resulted in the murder of Knoxville Radio Shack employee Joseph Ridings. Nance wasn't the one who pulled the trigger, but his presence was enough to put him away for essentially the rest of his life.
"I didn't wake up that morning with the intent of robbing (anyone). I went to school that day," Nance recalled. "In my heart, in my spirit, I knew that I wasn't supposed to be there at all that day."
"They knew that I wasn't the shooter, but it was like there was no compassion; there was no empathy."
Now, a landmark Tennessee Supreme Court decision may offer him and nearly 200 others a second chance. He's seeking clemency and the opportunity to be a productive adult outside the prison walls.
Tennessee had the harshest mandatory life sentence in the country for minors convicted of certain felonies, and the rule disproportionately punishes Black offenders. Nance was tried as an adult and argues he was failed by a system that doesn't protect children, especially Black children.
Last month, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that excessive mandatory life sentences for minors were "cruel and unusual punishment" and violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment. Those serving those sentences will now be eligible for parole after 25 years and people who have served more than 25 years - such as Nance - are expected to be granted parole hearings.
Nance is seeking legal guidance to learn how the court's ruling affects his case and what steps he should take next. He started the clemency process before the court's ruling, which is in review.
Seeking a second chance
The Supreme Court's ruling has offered a long-missing jolt of optimism for Nance, who has maintained a positive outlook throughout his sentence and took steps to grow in case freedom ever was an option.
"I can truly say that I know that I'm not the person I was at 16 years old," he said. "I'm totally not that guy."
"It was just from the remorse that I felt for this man's family, for the remorse that I felt for my mother, for the remorse that I felt for the people that I had hurt. I wanted to better myself for those people," he added.
Nance worked to earn his GED diploma and a heating and cooling technical certification. He also recently graduated from a college degree program through the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative. None of the program's graduates have returned to prison in comparison to the state's 47% recidivism rate.
Reuniting with his mom and adult daughter - who've never known him outside of prison - would "mean everything" but entering the workforce and becoming a positive role model for "little me's" is his dream. He's already stated a nonprofit to help deter young men from street culture and hopes to build on that work.
"I want to show them my scars. I want to tell them my story," he said. "I want to show them how young I was. I want to show them my two little strings of gray hair and I want to let them know that you can go that road and they don't have any issues with throwing you away."
Nance says he deeply empathizes with Ridings' family, especially after losing his younger brother to a 16-year-old shooter in an attempted robbery and grieving the death of his son last year. He takes accountability and has remorse that a man's life was taken.
But he also doesn't want other kids to experience the same sentencing with no leniency, and the high court's new decision is a start.
"They never looked at me from a position of being a child. They never gave me credit. I wasn't asking for anything special, but I was a child and they treated me as an adult," he said.
The effects of a flawed system
In 1996, Nance was questioned by police without an attorney. He says he asked for a lawyer and was denied one. And though an accomplice in the robbery and murder - a 16-year-old white girl - faced similar charges, she served only one year in prison and was sentenced to probation.
A 2019 investigation found there were 185 Tennesseans serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as minors. Studies show Black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for similar crimes. That number nearly doubles for Black men compared to white men.
"I don't think a child should be viewed as incorrigible or a waste of time because you never know what that child could grow to be," Nance said. "It's easier for them to punish you than it is to love you, to nurture you, to nourish."
Nance says prison doesn't foster correction and rehabilitation unless the people inside take the initiative themselves, like he has.
He believes community and outreach programs that "facilitate growth, that facilitate love, that facilitate education and knowledge" are key to righting an unjust system and keeping children from getting ensnared.
Changing Tennessee's history of extreme punishment for minors
Tennessee's harsh punishments for minors have been on the books since 1995. The recent major change is attributed to the case of Tyshon Booker who was 16 when he fatally shot G'Metrick Caldwell in Knoxville in 2015. He was tried as an adult and received the mandatory 51-year sentence.
Booker's lawyer, public defender Jonathan Harwell, argued to the state Supreme Court that minors should be given individualized sentences and noted the fundamental differences in brain development, especially when it comes to making impulsive decisions, between teens and adults.
"The court has held that this is something we as a society don't condone, something we can't allow to happen in our name anymore," Harwell told USA TODAY Network-Tennessee after the court's ruling.
The issue of the state's mandatory life sentences for minors previously garnered national attention in 2019 with clemency granted to sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown Long. She faced 51 years for shooting a man who had paid to have sex with her when she was 16 years old and being forced into prostitution by another man who beat and sexually assaulted her.
Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown Long clemency, calling her sentence "too harsh." Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Drake and Lebron James brought attention to her story.
Everyone deserves a way to correct their wrongs
Organizations like Community Defense of East Tennessee have been fighting for "child lifers" for years through legal assistance and education to sentences like the one Nance received.
"These are children that are put in situations and circumstances that not everyone has to face," advocate Imani Mfalme-Shu'la told Knox News. "People deserve a second chance. People deserve a way to correct their wrongs."
Community Defense of East Tennessee has been instrumental in Nance's case, helping him file a clemency plea and determining his next steps after the court's ruling.
He just wants the opportunity to show the world who he has become.
"I want to give as much (positivity) as I can for whatever time I have left because I haven't been able to give it never before."
Nance knows there are some who don't believe people like him should be released. But the criticism makes him wonder.
"Would they believe in a second chance if it was their own child? Would they believe that their children are not worthy? Or would they fight with all they have in them to see they at least have a chance to prove themselves redeemed or redeemable?"
Devarrick Turner is a trending news reporter for Knox News. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. Follow Devarrick on Twitter @dturner1208. Enjoy exclusive content and premium perks while supporting strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee ends extreme sentences for minors and offers second chances