Tennessee House, Senate speakers vow more legislation cracking down on violent crimes amid Memphis slayings

Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announces grants Thursday being provided to groups under the state’s Opportunity Act Pilot which is designed to assist low-income families gain education and other skills to get themselves off the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's top Republican legislative leaders vowed Thursday to double down on this year's "Truth in Sentencing" law and press new measures targeting violent criminals after last week's slaying of a mother of two killed while jogging in Memphis and an unrelated shooting spree in the city Wednesday that left four dead and three wounded.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the latest mayhem underscores their belief that the law they sponsored was necessary. It became law without Gov. Bill Lee's signature because he said data doesn't support claims such laws are effective.

The law requires people convicted in eight categories of violent crime -- including attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder and carjacking -- to serve 100% of their court-imposed sentences. It allows people convicted of 20 other violent offenses to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they could be considered for parole. The list of offenses in this category includes aggravated assault if the offense involves a deadly weapon.

"I think it points out the fact that we do need the law and possibly need to expand the law," McNally told two reporters as he and Sexton exited a State Building Commission meeting in the Cordell Hull State Office Building. "And we'll look at that in the upcoming session. But there's people that are in jail that get out early due to a number of different factors, and we need to explore them all."

The governor, who has supported criminal justice reforms, earlier this year refused to sign their Truth in Sentencing law.

"Widespread evidence suggests that this policy will result in more victims, higher recidivism, increased crime and prison overcrowding, all with an increased cost to taxpayers," Lee said.

However, the governor allowed it to become law, a nod to the likelihood that fellow Republicans could and would override his veto.

"I think there's a lot of things to look at, right," Sexton said of what lawmakers could do during their upcoming 2023 session. "And so there may be things we put out that the administration doesn't like.

"There may be things in there that they do. We'll work with them where we can, and if the General Assembly feels strongly about something, we're going to do what the General Assembly (does) because that's what we do on the legislative side.

"The governor can work, too. He can put forth a package if that's what he wants to do," Sexton said.

Sexton and McNally cited plea bargains with prosecutors as one area to explore.

"Now, is that the end all to end crime in our state? No, it's not. It's a very great first step," Sexton said while touting the Truth in Sentencing law.

Both he and McNally said they were willing to commit millions of dollars to build new prisons if need be for additional get-tough measures.

"I think what you've seen and what we've heard from Memphis is people finally saying enough is enough," Sexton said. "It's time to do something. So what you needed is community support. It doesn't matter what partisan or what political party you're affiliated with.

"We want safe communities, safe streets. You shouldn't be afraid to go out and run in the morning, you shouldn't be afraid to let your kids walk home from school," Sexton added. "You shouldn't be afraid to pump gas. But we've had over the last two decades a criminal justice approach that has been put in place by these soft-on-crime groups that want to tell the criminal, 'We care about how you feel, we don't want you to do this.'"

Sexton said if the Truth in Sentencing law had been passed in 2000 or even later in case of the alleged gunman in the shooting spree, "Those crimes would not have been committed. Those people would have been in jail. That's a fact. You can't dispute that fact."

Earlier this year, Sexton and McNally held ceremonial signings of the Truth in Sentencing law in areas around the state, including in Chattanooga.

Proven preventions

"To me, Memphis is seeing evil -- and innocent lives have been lost to senseless murders," Lee told reporters later in the day. "Those who committed these crimes, these heinous crimes, will be brought to justice, and it should be swift and severe. And our hearts and our condolences to the families, the victims of these terrible crimes.

"But," the governor said, "it is important that we work on proven crime preventions and make sure that we get ahead of these events in the future. I want to commend law enforcement and their response over the last couple of days to both events and other events that have happened in Memphis."

"This is exactly why we need to have proven crime prevention efforts across the state, why we have invested $100 million in the last budget for the Violent Crime Intervention Grant Fund."

The funding is available to law enforcement agencies across the state to invest in "evidence-based" programming and resources, including community violence intervention programs. Lee noted his 2020 criminal justice legislation requires "supervision for everyone who gets out, mandatory supervision."

It didn't apply to the two alleged gunmen in the Memphis cases because they were convicted years prior before his law passed, Lee added.

"We cannot let events from the last few days happen in such a way that it slows down a bit of progress," Lee said. "Like I said before, Memphis is the soul of the state, and it's hurting right now. But we are committed, we are with that community, and we are committed to making certain we address the issue of crime."

He noted that violent crime has increased not only in Memphis but across the state and nation.

"I think from this day forward," Lee said, "we need to look at what are the best steps going forward to reduce recidivism, that would reduce crime. I expect there will, I don't expect, I know there will be continued conversation about how we can move forward and improve and lower the crime level and recidivism rates in our state.

"We need to clearly be tough on crime, we cannot be soft on crime," Lee said. "We can be smart on crime. And there's a way to do both of those, and I think that's what we will do going forward."

While Sexton and McNally had already planned on revisiting law-and-order issues, last week's events in Memphis added fuel to the fire.

Memphis police say 34-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of two Eliza Fletcher, an heiress to a multibillion-dollar company, was abducted and killed by an ex-convict, Cleotha Abston, 38, who had spent more than half his life in jail after having been convicted of kidnapping a Memphis attorney.

He served 20 years of his 24-year sentence until his release two years ago. Sexton said if his and McNally's legislation had passed years ago, Abston's alleged murder wouldn't have happened because he would still be in prison.

In the other case, Ezekiel Kelly has been charged with first-degree murder in Wednesday's shooting spree. Police say the live-streaming gunman carjacked and shot at people, resulting in the deaths of four people and the wounding of three others.

Lee said he thinks "most important thing" are steps that can be taken to "address crime on the ground today," and predicted there will be much conversation on how "we can strengthen system in our state, how we can strengthen the law enforcement, how we can mitigate and hit this problem head on."

Lee said he spoke with Sexton earlier Thursday "about ways that we can work together to move forward on juvenile justice issues, on general issues regarding crime prevention and crime reduction. There are a lot of ways that we can work together, and I expect we'll be doing that."

Lee also responded to Sexton's criticism earlier in the day of criminal justice reform groups the governor has worked with. Sexton said among other things the latest Memphis shootings indicate they don't work.

"I'll just say that we all want the same thing. Every leader in this state, every citizen in this state, the people in Memphis should live in a safe neighborhood, the people of Nashville should live in a safe neighborhood, everyone should," Lee said.

Chattanooga has had its own gun violence woes this year, a phenomenon that has increased in recent years. The city this summer was hit with the first of two consecutive weekend mass shootings that earned the city national media attention.

Just before 11 p.m. on May 28, gunfire erupted near 100 Cherry St. and 100 Walnut St. between two groups of young people, injuring six teenagers. Police have since arrested a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old in connection with the case. Their names were not released because they are minors.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m. on June 5, police believe multiple shooters opened fire on McCallie Avenue in front of Mary's Bar & Grill. Two individuals died from gunshots, and another was struck and killed by a car fleeing the scene. The three people killed were Darian Hixson, 24, Myrakle Moss, 25, and Kevin Brown, 34. A total of 14 people were injured in the shooting spree.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.