A chance at freedom, barely
71-year-old Henry Montgomery has been in prison for over 50 years for his role in the shooting death of East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy Charles Hurt. But he now has a chance to see the free world. The petitioner in the U.S. Supreme Court case Montgomery v. Louisiana, which gave hope to thousands of people who thought they had no chance at redemption, finally received a parole-eligible sentence in July. He plans to apply for parole this year.
In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that Miller v. Alabama — which made automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles illegal — was retroactive. As a result, thousands of people sentenced to die in prison now have the opportunity to demonstrate to a court that they are not, in fact, “irreparably corrupt” and are capable of redemption.
Montgomery’s early life is a textbook example of the people who are facing resentencing after decades in prison — sentences that exceed what most adults convicted of murder receive. According to filings by Montgomery’s attorney, Montgomery had a childhood filled with physical abuse and neglect. His IQ at the time of his 1969 trial was estimated to be in the 70s. Since his time in prison, Montgomery has been a model inmate. The judge presiding over his resentencing, citing the recent changes in the law, begrudgingly agreed that Montgomery was not “irreparably corrupt.”
Hillar Moore, the current elected District Attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, did not take a position during the hearing, instead focusing on the impact on the victim’s family. At the time of the Montgomery v. Louisianadecision, Moore told a local news program, “Disappointed by the decision, respect the decision, will follow the decision obviously, there will be no appeal to this decision.” Moore than added his concern that 17-year-olds would somehow commit more murders and serve shorter sentences in juvenile facilities. (Notably, Moore’s stated concern is not the actual holding of Montgomery, which simply held that most juveniles should be eligible for parole, not released after a short juvenile sentence.)
Moore’s fear-mongering gobbledygook is hardly surprising. Both the court and the district attorney were forced to follow the law, but they did so as half-heartedly as possible. This resistance is shared by other prosecutors across the state. Earlier this year, the Louisiana District Attorney Association blocked a recommendation that would have given all juveniles a chance at parole after 30 years (along with other basic reforms) which would have saved the state money and complied with the Supreme Court’s rulings.
And the state has continued to sentence juvenile offenders to life-without-parole: out of 23 eligible cases, Louisiana DAs have obtained life-without-parole sentences for 18 of them, a high rate considering that the sentence is supposed to be reserved “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders.” Adding to the many challenges for those seeking a shot at freedom, attorneys assigned to represent individuals like Montgomery have limited resources; no additional funds were allotted for these time-consuming and costly investigations.
All of which is a disturbing portent for the sentencing outcomes for the nearly 300 inmates who are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers in Louisiana (a number which is the third highest in the nation after Pennsylvania and Michigan).
Twenty states have already decided that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles just don’t make sense and have eliminated them; another 14 have almost no one serving the sentence. As Louisiana and other states contend with the shifting legal landscape, people like Montgomery may finally have a chance to see the world without bars.