Austin American-Statesman, May 15, 2008

Do 51-Year life sentences make sense for juveniles?

Gauna went to prison at 18 for a murder he committed at 17. How a 51-year-life sentence practically turned into a death sentence

By Tony Vick
By Tony Vick

Tony Vick, 60, has served 25 years on a Life With Parole sentence in Tennessee.

It took the jury only thirty minutes on that Wednesday afternoon to decide that Alejandro Gauna, 17 years old at the time of the crime, was guilty of 1st degree murder.  The choice before them after that was only two-fold:  A Life Sentence with the Possibility of Parole or Life Without Parole.  This decision proved not to be as easy as the first – a hung jury.  Therefore, the judge was left to pass a sentence of Life with the Possibility of Parole.  So on May 8, 2008, Tipton County Judge Joseph Walker turned young Alejandro over to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

 

The sentence Alejandro received for 1st degree murder in Tennessee really didn’t make much difference. You see, effectively Tennessee has three death sentences for murder since life with the possibility of parole means the person must serve 51 years before parole eligibility can even be considered.  Fifty-one years in prison is an unrealistic time to survive incarceration.  Then of course, there is the death penalty and the life without parole sentence.

Tennessee is the only state where a life sentence with the possibility of release means serving 51 years. The national average for life with the possibility of release is 25 years.  Actually, before the Clinton Crime Bill was enacted and Tennessee’s version adopted in 1995 – 25 years was the minimum standard in Tennessee. 

Alejandro began life in Austin, Texas in what appeared to be a blessed two-parent home, attending church and excelling in school.  Living on the outskirts of violent housing projects, it was always in Alejandro’s peripheral vision that danger lurked very close by, often seeing the police chasing people through his back yard.  At fourteen, Alejandro’s life was about to change, his parents, both Mexican-American, divorced.  Alejandro’s world was broken and the chaos that developed sent him into a downward spiral — from dropping out of school in the ninth grade, hanging out with the wrong crowd, running away from home to escape the dysfunction, to getting hooked on drugs and then selling drugs to survive. He found himself in and out of juvenile detention centers and rehab until he eventually simply ran away.  

Like so many who find themselves running from something, what they run towards turns out just as bad or worse than the horrors they tried to escape.  Trauma from the  craziness of addiction and bad influences did not help Alejandro’s mental stability when he was robbed at gunpoint and felt very close to dying at 14 years old.  The only thing he knew to do to feel somewhat safe at that point was to carry a gun.

On January 1, 2007, at age 17, Alejandro and a friend drove to Tennessee to sell the only asset they had to offer – marijuana.  When State Trooper Calvin Jenks pulled the two over for speeding, the decisions Alejandro made in a few moments would end two people’s lives:  The Trooper’s and Alejandro’s.  In a hazy and scared attempt to get away, Alejandro fired two bullets into Trooper Jenks, and life ended.

As horrific as this crime is, the fact that a seventeen-year-old committed it has to be considered. “Scientific research shows key developmental differences between youth and adults that impact a youth’s decision making, impulse control, and susceptibility to peer pressure. While these differences do not excuse youth from responsibility for their actions, the U.S. Supreme Court has reportedly recognized that youth are less blameworthy than adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation,” according to the Juvenile Law Center

If Alejandro’s attorney, Blake Ballin would have called the expert witness, Dr. James S. Walker, who was prepared to testify, the jury would have received forensic psychological evidence that may have weighed on their decision. “My evaluation of Mr. Gauna revealed that he was suffering from several mental health conditions at the time of his offense, including major depression, cannabis intoxication, formaldehyde intoxication, and antisocial/paranoid personality characteristics.  His ability to act in a premeditated fashion was impaired at the time of the crime by his mental conditions,” Walker wrote in 2013. 

An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the U.S.   Despite the establishment of a separate juvenile system over a century ago – youth are routinely charged and prosecuted in adult criminal justice systems. During the 1990’s, the era when many of our most punitive criminal justice policies were developed – 49 states altered their laws to increase the number of minors being tried as adults.

According to 2017 data from Tennessee Department of Correction, there are 1,294 individuals in Tennessee prisons serving a 51-year life sentence.  Over half (699) of these individuals were youthful offenders (between the ages of 18-25) or juveniles (below the age of 18) on the date of the offense.  Specifically, 115 were below the age of 18.

Alejandro is contrite when recounting his story, first acknowledging the incredible harm he has done by taking an innocent life and all the pain he has caused the community and families.  Now after being incarcerated nearly 15 years, and enduring all the difficulties of a juvenile entering an adult system, his regrets are many, from not finishing school, starting drugs, and picking up a gun to feel safe.

As he has matured, Alejandro has taken advantage of every opportunity for growth and education offered him.  He earned his GED the very first year of incarceration, got involved with church programs, took business classes led by Stan Olson for five years, took part in speaking to youth groups visiting the prison (MARS Program), attended classes through Union University, received his Barber’s License, and now is working with TRICOR (Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Corrections) – as a graphic designer.  TRICOR helps offenders to transform themselves by providing continuous preparation and assistance through the context of work and career management. The ultimate goal for TRICOR is to prepare offenders for success after release.

Many advocacy groups are working hard to change the Life sentence laws in Tennessee, one in particular, No Exceptions Prison Collective (NEPC) has worked six years on the issue. “No Exceptions has worked to educate communities and legislators concerning this inhumane and draconian 51-year life sentence, and we have supported legislation that would reduce the 51 years back to 25 years for a possibility of parole for everyone with that sentence,” Rev. Jeannie Alexander, Co-Founder of NEPC, said. 

“Accountability does not require death, it does not require an exile ending in death,” Alexander added. It does look like Tennessee is headed for making some important and moral decisions regarding their sentencing laws.  Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), was quoted in a March 6, 2019 Tennessean article:

“Many young defendants face childhood hardships and trauma that can be overcome with time and treatment. It’s so complicated when you’re dealing with loss of life, but we are talking about children. As horrific as it sounds that a child committed murder, the person they are now is not the person they will be in 20 years.”

Perhaps 2022 will begin a transition for Tennessee laws and for Alejandro, and the work of NEPC along with many other advocacy groups, will help everyone acknowledge that justice does not look like making people disappear forever; justice is about healing, transforming, and true accountability.  Vengeance is not justice.

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