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Louisiana Denies Parole to Man Behind a Supreme Court Ruling Limiting Life Sentences for Children

By all accounts, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery is not the same man he was when he was 17. In 1963, Montgomery skipped school and encountered Charles H. Hurt, a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy, in the woods. In a panic, he shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun. A Baton Rouge, Louisiana jury convicted Montgomery of murder […]

U.S. Supreme CourtStringer via Getty

By all accounts, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery is not the same man he was when he was 17. In 1963, Montgomery skipped school and encountered Charles H. Hurt, a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy, in the woods. In a panic, he shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun.

A Baton Rouge, Louisiana jury convicted Montgomery of murder and, after an initial death sentence was voided, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

During his decades at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, Montgomery started a boxing club, joined a church, and kickstarted a literacy program. He worked as a silkscreener and won a number of awards for his job.

Yet on Monday, the Louisiana parole board voted 2 to 1 to keep Montgomery in prison. Why?

“It was Henry Montgomery,” said Kerry Myers, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Parole Project, which represented Montgomery in the parole hearing. “I got the feeling that if it was anyone else besides Henry Montgomery … maybe it would have been different. Maybe the opposition would not have been as strong.”

That’s because Montgomery successfully challenged his five-decade-old life without parole sentence in a landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, SCOTUS held that its previous ruling (Miller v. Alabama)which declared mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, should be applied retroactively. Montgomery’s retroactivity paved the way to freedom for roughly 2,000 prisoners across the country sentenced as teenagers to life without the possibility of parole. Three hundred are incarcerated in Louisiana.

“Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2016 opinion, “and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Even after his Supreme Court victory, Montgomery spent two years fighting for a chance at release and completing numerous prerequisites —such as taking 100 hours of pre-release training and developing a certified reentry plan — that Louisiana requires before an inmate can even appear before a parole board.

The decision to deny Montgomery’s parole Monday shocked juvenile justice advocates. But it was also representative of the way Louisiana has skirted the Supreme Court’s instruction to stop condemning children to die in prison.

The Court held in Montgomery and Miller that such sentences should be highly unusual. Because scientists now understand that the human brain does not fully mature until a person is in his or her mid-20s, the ruling states,children and teenagers have an immense capacity to change and become positive forces in society, even if they committed heinous crimes in their youth. Therefore, only “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” should face life without parole, the Court concluded in Miller.

Louisiana prosecutors, however, seem to believe that most of the juveniles they have sentenced to life without parole are, in fact, irredeemable. The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) found that prosecutors are seeking to reinstate life without parole sentences for more than one-third of the juvenile lifers eligible for re-sentencing. As LCCR explained in a November press release, who gets a juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentence and who is spared seems dictated solely by the local district attorney’s preferences:

The rate at which DAs are seeking JLWOP varies by jurisdiction, suggesting that a person’s fate can be determined by happenstance of location rather than by their individual circumstances.

Lafourche Parish’s DA is not pursuing JLWOP in any of its five cases, while the West Baton Rouge DA’s Office has filed in all four of its cases, and the 23rd Judicial District in four out of five instances.

In 2016, Caddo and Jefferson Parishes had roughly the same number of people serving illegal JLWOP sentences. Caddo DA James Stewart has filed for JLWOP in only one case, whereas DA Paul Connick has filed in 10 of 24, or 43%, of cases.

Like Jefferson Parish, other districts with the highest numbers of cases are also seeking JLWOP at the highest rates. In East Baton Rouge Parish, DA Hillar Moore is pursuing JLWOP at a rate of 42%. In Orleans Parish, DA Leon Cannizzaro has filed notices in 44% of cases in his district.

“There appears to be basically zero criteria being used to evaluate which case should go forward,” said Jill Pasquarella, an attorney with LCCR.

Indeed, because many of these cases precede current prosecutors by decades, Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro told the Times-Picayune in November that “we’re basically just guessing on these cases.”

“We are trying to make the best decision that we can without really seeing this person,” he said. “I think it puts an unfair burden on the district attorneys.”

Despite his complaint that DAs are ill-equipped to make these decisions, the Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association (LDAA) successfully blockedlegislation last year that would have eliminated JLWOP entirely and put the decision in the hands of the parole board. Because the organization killed the bill, “there’s a practical burden that DAs are now placing on the courts and on public defenders to now defend these cases and hear these cases,” Pasquarella said.

The state must hold resentencing hearings for each case where the DA seeks to reinstate JLWOP, clogging court dockets and costing the state millions.

Meanwhile, newly convicted teenagers are still facing life without parole sentences. Life without parole remains the most common sentence for children convicted of murder in Louisiana; LCCR found that 62 percent of those convicted since 2012 have been sentenced to die in prison.

Still, the fight to get juvenile lifers in front of the Louisiana parole board may ultimately be pointless if the parole board tasked with considering their release denied relief to the man who made such hearings possible.

Montgomery’s hearing reportedly focused on the facts of his crime 54 years ago rather than the man he has become. Ultimately, the board claimed it denied Montgomery parole because he had only taken two classes during his time in prison (Montgomery’s attorney pointed out that no classes were offered to lifers for the first 30 years of his incarceration).

“No one said in that room that Henry was irredeemable or the worst of the worst, which is the criteria for keeping them in prison,” Myers said.

According to the Louisiana Parole Project, the board has denied parole to more than 50 percent of the juvenile lifers who have managed to get a hearing. If that trend continues, another challenge could be in the works.

“The underpinnings of Miller and Montgomery are more than just a perfunctory hearing where you get to hope for release,” Pasquarella said. “If applicants are going to the parole board and being summarily denied without much process, or in great numbers, then that’s going to be a problem. That raises the question, is the parole board hearing the meaningful opportunity for release that the court had in mind?”

Meanwhile, Montgomery’s long battle for freedom isn’t over. He can reapply for parole in two years, though there’s no guarantee the board will grant him another hearing. Still, “he handled it like he’s handled everything in the time he’s been there — stoically,” Myers said. “He’ll get another day.”

Thanks to Cassi Feldman.