Memphis inmate sentenced to 12 years, but error shows him serving years longer

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UPDATE: TDOC corrected McKay’s sentence to 12 years after this story aired. Documents below.

EARLIER STORY:

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis man reportedly was behind bars when he found out an extra eight years was added to his sentence in error.

In January 2020, Tavarius McKay, 22, entered the Shelby County Correctional Center to serve 12 years for multiple burglary convictions.

“When he got the time sheet, it said 20 years,” explained McKay’s father David Rivers. “I keep calling. They saying, ‘We’re going to straighten it out,’ but we haven’t gotten any answers yet.”

Months later, the family still does not have answers, leading them to call WREG’s investigator Jessica Gertler for help.

Tavarius McKay

“I’m really worried. That’s why it came down to me talking to you all. I felt helpless, so I said I have to reach out to somebody,” said Rivers.

WREG has been working to help Rivers since the summer. In August, the Tennessee Department of Correction’s website listed McKay as serving 20 years.

In an email, Jude Lee Coffee confirmed McKay was sentenced to 12 years, but wrote “TDOC had a problem with understanding the judgements.”

“The attorneys worked diligently with the clerk’s office to ascertain what the misunderstanding was with the TDOC,” he went on to state. “The attorneys submitted amended judgments.” He said he signed them three weeks ago.

But the problem still hasn’t been fixed. The TDOC said it hasn’t received anything despite its website changing McKay’s sentenced from 20 years to 18. It wouldn’t say why the number changed, leading to more confusion for everyone including Coffee.

Below: Searches of TDOC records show McKay’s sentence as 20 years, and a more current search showing his sentence as 18 years.

In an email sent Monday, Coffee reiterated that “(McKay’s) lawyer, the prosecutor and I have attempted to clarify a sentence that everyone understands—except apparently TDOC.”

He went on to say that he “will enter a final document when I can figure out what the confusion is.  It is a mystery to everyone.”

It’s an issue that Josh Spickler with Just City, a criminal reform advocacy group, said is not uncommon.

“The criminal legal system is massive. We are antiquated in the ways that we pass information along. It is not electronic. It’s all still handwritten. Mistakes happen and correcting them involves additional paperwork and communication. face to face or voice to voice,” he explained.

He said McKay is lucky he has someone on the outside working to clear things up.

“What about the people that don’t. What do they do?” asked Gertler.

“People who have sentences that may have an error are at the mercy of that system,” he replied. “And if we were concerned about the lives and futures we incarcerate, we would have an answer to that question.”

The TDOC didn’t say how often something like this happens. They only said if an offender believes their sentence is incorrect, those “housed in county jails can write directly to TDOC Sentence Management.” Those “housed in a facility must go through their counselor and records office prior to sending a request to sentence management.”

TDOC said it is waiting on clarification, which is something Coffee said he’s been working on for quite some time. He stated, “we filed 13 amended judgments on this case already.”

He told WREG he would be submitting another judgment again.

“It’s just not right,” said Rivers. “He’s been stressing. I’ve been stressing.”

Stressing because a longer sentenced could impact how soon his son is eligible for parole. According to court documents, McKay is eligible after serving 35 percent of his sentence. But more years pushes that date back.

“I hope they get everything straightened out,” he said.

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