The decision made clear that the ban on mandatory life without parole in juvenile homicide cases applied retroactively, giving more than 2,000 inmates a chance for reconsideration.
Henry Montgomery went to prison for fatally shooting Charles Hurt, an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy, in 1963. Hurt was looking for truants and came upon Montgomery, a 17-year-old skipping school. Montgomery, now 71, was at first sentenced to death, then retried and sentenced to life without parole.
Montgomery’s lawyers argued the 2012 high court decision should apply to inmates already serving such sentences; some states disputed its application to those locked up for long-ago crimes.
In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court in January 2016 ruled for Montgomery, and said inmates serving no-parole terms for murders committed as juveniles are entitled to make a case for release. “In light of what this Court has said in Roper, Graham, and Miller about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability ... prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
Montgomery went before a judge for resentencing this spring. In court, Hurt’s grown daughter, Becky Wilson, said her father’s death upended her childhood and her family’s life for decades. Though she said she forgave Montgomery, “I also believe he got a just sentence.” Montgomery apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just sorry for this whole situation.” Prosecutors noted the arguments for and against Montgomery’s release. He had killed a law enforcement officer, but his prison record had been clean. He’d started a boxing club for inmates and had a long work record. A judge said he had been a “model prisoner.”
In June, he was resentenced to life with parole. He has not yet gone before a state parole committee.
LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.
There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.