Supreme Court Affirms Denial of Parole to Prisoner Serving a Twenty-Year Sentence

January 10, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the Tennessee Board of Parole’s decision to deny parole to a prisoner based on the seriousness of the offense.

In January 2009, Joseph Brennan pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted rape of a child and incest. Mr. Brennan, who was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, began serving his sentence on April 3, 2009. In March 2013, the Tennessee Board of Parole denied his request for parole, determining that Mr. Brennan’s release from custody would depreciate the seriousness of the crime for which he had been convicted or would promote disrespect for the law.

Mr. Brennan appealed to the Davidson County Chancery Court, asserting that the Board’s decision was illegal, contrary to established law, and arbitrary and capricious. The Chancery Court upheld the Board’s decision. Mr. Brennan appealed to the Court of Appeals. Instead of addressing the issues raised by Mr. Brennan, the Court of Appeals calculated when Mr. Brennan should have been considered for parole and decided his parole hearing was held too early. Due to the passage of time, the Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Brennan was then entitled to a hearing and sent the case back for a new parole hearing.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the Board’s request to hear the case. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals exceeded its authority by calculating Mr. Brennan’s release eligibility date, and it did so incorrectly. The Tennessee Department of Correction is solely responsible for calculating a prisoner’s release eligibility date, which is determined monthly based on sentence reduction credits earned and retained or lost by the prisoner’s institutional conduct.

In reviewing the Board’s decision to deny parole, the Supreme Court noted that a prisoner is not entitled to parole before the expiration of his sentence. The Board, by statute, may deny parole for several reasons, including that the prisoner’s release from custody would depreciate the seriousness of the crime or promote disrespect for the law. When a prisoner appeals the Board’s decision, the court’s review is narrow. The court determines only whether the Board’s decision was illegal, fraudulent, or arbitrary and does not reweigh the evidence or otherwise review the correctness of the decision. In this case, the Supreme Court concluded that the Board considered the appropriate factors, including the facts of the offense; Mr. Brennan’s good institutional record; his completion of a sexual offender treatment program; his remorse and apology to the victim; his personal circumstances; the support for parole from the victim, family members, and friends; and his plans upon release.

The Supreme Court held that the Board did not act illegally, fraudulently, or arbitrarily in denying Mr. Brennan parole based on the seriousness of the offense and deferring his next parole hearing for five years. The Supreme Court affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision upholding the Board’s denial of parole and reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

To read the opinion in Brennan v. Board of Parole, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.