A Louisiana inmate whose case led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling extending the hope of freedom to juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole will hear Thursday whether he’ll finally get paroled after more than five decades in prison.
A three-member board will hear the case of 72-year-old Henry Montgomery.
Montgomery was convicted in the 1963 killing of an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy named Charles Hunt; Montgomery was 17 at the time when he killed the officer, who caught him skipping school.
He was initially convicted and sentenced to death. Then the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled he didn’t get a fair trial and threw out his murder conviction in 1966.
He was retried, convicted and sentenced to life without parole and spent decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Then the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentencing of life without parole for juvenile offenders was “cruel and unusual” punishment. But it didn’t settle the question of whether that decision applied retroactively or only to cases going forward.
In 2016, the Supreme Court settled the matter by taking up Montgomery’s case, and deciding to extend their decision on such sentences to people already in prison.
In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said inmates such as Montgomery “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
The court’s decision was based in part on research that shows adolescent brains are slow to develop so teen offenders are more likely to act recklessly but also can be rehabilitated. Therefore, they shouldn’t be sentenced as harshly as adults. The sentence can still be used but only in rare circumstances for those unlikely to be rehabilitated.
Since then 1,850 people have been resentenced, including 450 who have been released, said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. She said 21 states now ban life-without-parole sentences outright and five others have it on their books but don’t use it. In 2012, only five states banned life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
“We’ve seen a consistent trend moving away from these sentences across the country,” she said.
Montgomery was resentenced in June 2017 to life with the possibility of parole and had his first parole hearing in February 2018.
During the hearing he asked forgiveness from the deputy’s family and from God, saying he was sorry “for all the pain and misery that I’ve caused.”
The board voted 2-1 to keep Montgomery behind bars. He wasn’t eligible for another parole hearing until 2020 but his lawyer applied for a rehearing and it was granted.
A decision to grant parole must be unanimous.
If released, he will take part in a post-release plan arranged by the Louisiana Parole Project, which assists juvenile lifers who are leaving prison and re-entering society. The plan would involve an initial place to live as well as mentoring on life skills such as shopping or using a cell phone. Montgomery is also being represented by a lawyer from the group.