The state Court of Criminal Appeals reduced a 225-year prison sentence Tuesday for a former Lebanon youth minister who pleaded guilty to nine counts of child rape in 2011.
Tavaria Merritt, 19 at the time he was sentenced by Wilson County Criminal Court Judge David Durham, received a new 50-year sentence from the appeals court – two 25-year sentences for child rape on two counts to be served concurrently.
“On appeal, the defendant contends that his effective sentence is the equivalent of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and is cruel and unusual punishment under the United States and Tennessee Constitutions,” said Criminal Appeals Court Judge Joseph Tipton in the opinion. “…We conclude that the sentence is excessive, reverse the judgments of the trial court and remand for entry of judgments reflecting an effective 50-year sentence.”
Merritt was charged with child rape in 2009 when he was a juvenile and was transferred to adult court in December 2009. A Wilson County grand jury indicted Merritt in January 2010.
Merritt pleaded guilty in March 2011 to sexually assaulting three boys, 10 and 11 years old at the time, according to court records. The boys knew Merritt through a Lebanon church where Merritt worked with youth. A presentence report showed the abuse happened between January-June 2009.
“Only one victim impact statement was submitted to the court,” the opinion said. “The victim said he became angry when he talked about the abuse. He said, ‘I would never think in a million years that a minister would try to rape a kid. I thought the church would be the safest place.’ The victim wanted to be a pastor. The victim’s mother reported that the victim was receiving counseling.”
Court records showed parents of the victims reported the abuse to authorities, and several children were interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center. That’s when the three victims came forward.
According to court records, the incidents happened primarily at Merritt’s home, where he lived with his parents in Wilson County.
Merritt showed up at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office unannounced on Aug. 20, 2009 and said he wanted to speak to Detective Brian Harbaugh about the allegations the children made. Merritt confessed to the abuse to Harbaugh, and the interview was taped and made an exhibit during a hearing, according to court records.
Merritt was 17 at the time the abuse was committed, but turned 18 by the time Harbaugh interviewed him. Merritt was initially charged in juvenile court, but the case was transferred to Wilson County Criminal Court in December 2009.
“The trial court stated that although the defendant was young, his life was over regardless of whether it sentenced him to 25 or 225 years,” the opinion said. “The court said it was no longer interested in the defendant’s life and wanted to protect the children and the public from the defendant. The court noted that sentencing the defendant to 25 years would send a message to potential defendants that the penalty for 20 rapes was the same for one rape. The court stated that it intended for the defendant to remain in confinement for the remainder of his life. This appeal followed.”
The appeals court concluded Durham properly applied state law in ordering consecutive sentencing, but Merritt’s 225-year sentence violated the “purposes and principles of our sentencing statutes.”
In addition, the opinion said a consecutive sentence “must comply with the general sentencing principles that a sentence be deserved in relation to the seriousness of the offense be no greater than that deserved for the offense committed and be the least severe measure necessary to achieve the purposes for which the sentence was imposed.”
“The defendant used that position of trust to accomplish the sexual abuse,” Tipton said in the opinion. “We note that the victim impact statement submitted to the court reflects that one of the victims never suspected that a youth minister would be capable of such conduct. Although the record reflects that the abuse occurred between January and June 2009, the record also reflects that the abuse suffered by the two victims who were brothers occurred on the same day.
“As a result of the abuse, the victims received counseling, although evidence of long-term impact was not presented at the sentencing hearing. For these reasons, we conclude that two consecutive 25-year sentences are appropriate and comply with the purposes and principles of our Sentencing Act.”
Criminal Appeals Court Judge Camille McMullen wrote the dissenting opinion and effectively said the 50-year sentence Merritt received wasn’t enough.
“Here, I do not believe that a sentence of 50 years adequately reflects the facts and circumstances of this case,” McMullen wrote in the dissent. “…In my view, an effective sentence of 75 years is more in line with the sentences imposed by Tennessee courts for cases involving similar facts.”
Under his new sentence, Merritt will be released from prison in 2061. He would be 69 years old.