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

U.S. Supreme Court
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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 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.

How ‘El Chapo’s’ Attorney is Fighting For His Client’s Right to a Fair Trial

How ‘El Chapo’s’ Attorney is Fighting For His Client’s Right to a Fair Trial

Each day in his small cell in a Manhattan federal prison, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera battles severe headaches and vomiting, his lawyer says. He spends several hours with members of his defense team, reviewing 300,000 pages of discovery to prepare for his upcoming trial on charges including “leading a continuing criminal enterprise,” drug distribution, use of firearms, and money laundering. When he is alone, back in his cell, the Mexican-born Guzmán, the alleged leader of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, reviews documents on a government-issued laptop. Excluding family and legal visits, Guzmán is locked in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) for 23 hours per day.

Since January 2017, when Guzmán was extradited to the U.S. and admitted to the facility — which was once described as “worse than Guantánamo”—his legal team has repeatedly challenged his extreme confinement as unconstitutional.

In a court hearing on February 15 ahead of his September 2018 trial, Guzmán’s lead attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, asked that his client be able to air his grievances about the conditions of his confinement. Prosecutors objected to the request, arguing he could “use the opportunity to pass messages to the media or others.” U.S. Eastern District Judge Brian Cogan agreed to consider allowing Guzmán to speak at his next court hearing in April, and instructed him to put his complaints into a letter.

Guzmán may be a notorious figure, but he has never been convicted of a crime in the United States, and Balarezo is determined to ensure that his client’s due process rights are not violated.

“Every defendant has a right to a trial, whether he is Joaquín Guzmán or Joe Smith,” Balarezo told The Appeal. “We are optimistic that he will get a fair trial and we believe that if he does, a jury will be able to see through all the chaff and see the reality of this case and not just what the government wants them to see.”

Balarezo says that his client endures bleak conditions at MCC. The area where Guzmán is housed, known as 10 South, is so isolated that some prisoners there have reported deteriorating eyesight, according to the New York Times.In a nearby unit known as 9 South with similarly restrictive conditions, one prisoner wrote to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that temperatures in the cells hover around 50 degrees and that he has observed roaches and insect eggs in his food.

“[Guzmán] is having a great deal of difficulty with the conditions of his confinement,” Balarezo said. “He is having psychological problems, he is having auditory hallucinations. The medical treatment he gets is minimal at best and non-existent at worst.”

In December 2017, a psychologist evaluated Guzmán after Balarezo told the court that his client’s mental health was suffering at MCC.

Balarezo declined to discuss the psychologist’s findings, but he said that she concluded Guzmán suffered from the issues he described “as a result of his confinement.”

The government argues that Guzmán’s extraordinary confinement is necessary to keep him from staging a jailbreak, noting that he twice escaped from high-security prisons in Mexico.

Federal prosecutors use the same reasoning to argue that discovery in the Guzmán case should be highly protected. The defense team is forbidden from taking discovery out of the country or showing it to third parties such as associates or family members, who could potentially help his team fight the government’s case. The government has also redacted significant portions of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents it has provided to the defense.

“The majority of the discovery is not identifiable in the sense of there are no dates, names,” Balarezo said. “Also, because much of it is heavily redacted, it is basically useless at this point.”

Prosecutors have hinted they are planning to recount, in detail, Guzmán’s rise from a marijuana farmer to the head of a cartel that allegedly raked in $14 billion over four continents.

Balarezo says the government’s case relies primarily upon cooperators who have disclosed information about the cartel’s operations. The defense team doesn’t know the identity of most of the witnesses who will be called to testify during the trial, excluding two brothers who used to operate within the Sinaloa cartel, Margarito and Pedro Flores, who are reportedly expected to be star witnesses. Both received 14 years in prison instead of life sentences for handing over covertly recorded conversations with Guzmán.

Balarezo says their testimony is not to be trusted because they benefit from testifying against Guzmán.

“We believe their testimony will be suspect and tainted and we hope the jury sees it the way it is,” he said. “It’s going to be obvious that most of these people are admitted criminals. They will be individuals who have committed murders, who have done horrendous things, who have signed onto the government’s team to trade their testimony in exchange for more lenient sentences.”

Making the case even more challenging for Balarezo, Judge Cogan ruled in early February that an anonymous and partially sequestered jury would be empaneled in order to protect jurors from alleged Guzmán associates. Balarezo unsuccessfully argued that an anonymous jury would give jurors the impression his client is dangerous and therefore guilty.

“This is a very difficult case mainly because of the restrictions on my client and on what we can do,” he said. “However, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure the government doesn’t just steamroll him with a case that’s primarily composed of cooperator testimony.”

A spokesman for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment and referred In Justice Today to court documents.

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Philadelphia City Council’s Vote in Favor of Ending Cash Bail Bolsters Citywide Push

Activists cheer seconds after the Philadelphia City Council voted to urge a move away from money bail.
Philadelphia City Council / Youtube

Philadelphia City Council’s Vote in Favor of Ending Cash Bail Bolsters Citywide Push

In early February, the Philadelphia City Council made history: It voted unanimously in favor of ending the use of cash bail.

The resolution, passed February 1, urges the district attorney’s office and the courts “to institute internal policies that reduce reliance on cash bail” and called on the state legislature and state Supreme Court to eliminate cash bail statewide.

The Council’s vote doesn’t have legal force; the state legislature would have to act in order to end the use of cash bail in Philadelphia or anywhere else in Pennsylvania. But advocates say it is still important — and signals that more meaningful action may be on the way.

“Even if it doesn’t have legislative heft, it’s always helpful to have such vocal support from the [city] legislature,” said Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff of the Philadelphia mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “It just means that all three branches of government in Philadelphia are on the same page in terms of the direction we’re moving in as a city, regardless of what the state decides to do.”

Paul Heaton, academic director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at University of Pennsylvania Law School, agreed. “The City Council vote is not merely symbolic,” Heaton said in an email. “The recent vote signals some openness by the Council to consider budgetary or legislative requests from agencies that would support policies or programs that reduce cash bail, and this should encourage those interested in reform.”

Even without action from the state legislature, he said, the City Council, courts, and DA’s office can decrease the use of bail. “There is no ‘magic bullet’ solution that is going to allow the city to end cash bail,” said Heaton. “It is going to require parallel efforts across a variety of domains involving the entire criminal justice system.”

The city could provide earlier representation for detainees in the pretrial process, for instance, so attorneys could more effectively argue for release instead of bail. Judges and magistrates could use risk assessments to allow more people to be released. Perhaps most importantly, Heaton said, there should be fewer arrests in the first place, particularly for low-level offenses.

The City Council has already taken some legislative action: In 2016, it changed some low-level nuisance offenses, such as disorderly conduct or public drunkenness, into civil code violations, meaning that those who are charged are issued tickets instead of arrested. Advocates want even more offenses to be categorized as civil code violations so they result in summonses instead of arrests, effectively ending cash bail for those types of charges.

Meanwhile, municipal court has the power to formulate bail guidelines that focus on releasing people on unsecured bail — which doesn’t require arrestees to pay anything up-front to be released, only if they fail to return to court — or on non-monetary conditions, such as monitoring or drug tests. “If the president judge of the municipal court and a majority of the municipal court bench agreed on a set of guidelines making money bail an option of last resort, that could change overnight,” noted Arjun Malik, a board member of the Philadelphia Bail Fund.

“Discretion really does lie with these local actors — the courts, the district attorney’s office — to change their policies as they stand today,” added Malik.

Local actors include District Attorney Larry Krasner, who was elected in November on a pledge, among others, to end the use of cash bail. “There’s clearly vocal support from him to accelerate this work,” Wertheimer noted.

Ben Waxman, communications director for Krasner’s office, is enthusiastic about the City Council’s recent vote. “We view it very much as a positive step forward towards [the] consensus that is building around the issue,” he said. Even a few years ago, he added, bail reform wasn’t an issue that galvanized many voters; now it’s a widely discussed issue citywide.

The DA’s office plans to take action on bail reform soon, although Waxman couldn’t share specifics yet. “What we are engaged in at the moment is an internal review of current district attorney polices around how we ask for bail and for what amounts and for what types of offenses,” he said. In the next few weeks, he said, his office will have some “pretty significant announcements” coming out that will “outline a plan to move forward to turn that vision to reality.”

“Expect to see some changes,” he added.

The city’s push for bail reform got a boost in 2016, when Philadelphia was awarded a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the number of people held in its jails. Since then, its jail population has dropped by about 17 percent. Still, about a quarter of the people held in city jails are there because they can’t make bail. Wertheimer said it takes time to move from a grant to large-scale changes. “As you can imagine, these things, even with the funding and outside support in place, take a while to actually operationalize,” Wertheimer said.

One important change that resulted from the MacArthur grant is that if a defendant is given a bail amount of $50,000 or less for a nonviolent offense, he or she gets a review hearing five days later. According to Malik of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, about 90 percent of people who have review hearings are then released, which means they are now spending less time in jail due to an inability to afford bail. “But that’s not good enough,” he argued. “Putting them in jail for five days is incredibly destabilizing to their lives and there’s no real justification for it.”

“I don’t want to discount how much good it’s done compared to the previous status quo,” he added. “But it’s not anywhere near ending money bail. It’s not good enough.”

Ultimately, Malik hopes the City Council’s vote will help build momentum for reform. “It certainly helps put pressure on both the DA’s office and the court system, and even the state legislature, in saying, ‘Hey, Philadelphia wants to change and you need to catch up,’” he said.

Indeed, there is already pressure on the state legislature to eliminate cash bail altogether. “We’re watching to see if the state actually moves on it,” Wertheimer said. While bail reform bills have thus far been introduced but not enacted, she said, “that could change at any time.”

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