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Court Reverses Sentence of Man Accused of Raping Three Boys

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee's Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed a 225-year sentence for a former youth pastor convicted of raping three boys as a juvenile.

In an opinion filed on Tuesday, the court ordered that Tavaria Merritt be re-sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Merritt pleaded guilty to raping the boys while he was serving as a youth pastor at their Lebanon church in 2009. He was 17 years old when he committed the crimes. One of the boys was 10 years old and two were 11 years old.

On Tuesday, two members of a three-member panel of the appeals court ruled that the original sentence was excessive because it was not the least severe measure necessary to protect the victims and the public. The majority also found the 225-year sentence failed to reflect the potential that Merritt could be rehabilitated.

The opinion said the trial court judge erred by substituting his own experience for the evidence in the record when determining the damage suffered by the victims.

According to the opinion, the trial court judge said he had seen cases in which victims of sexual assault could not form relationships and used drugs to forget the abuse.

The judge "acknowledged that no proof was presented regarding the victims' physical and mental injuries but stated 'we've all seen it in prior cases . . . and I just think we can all note that anybody (who is) a victim of a violent sexual assault carries a heavy burden their entire life.'"

One of the three appeals judges dissented from the opinion, saying a 75-year sentence was more appropriate.
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