Al Drago / CQ Roll Call

After 52 years in prison, SCOTUS may help set Henry Montgomery free

Supreme Court will consider whether prior ruling on juvenile sentencing may apply retroactively

In November of 1963, Henry Montgomery, a 17-year-old African-American 10th-grader was playing hooky in a park just outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when he was approached by Charles Hunt Jr., a deputy sheriff who had been assigned that day to round up truants.

Later Montgomery told authorities that he hadn’t meant to kill Hunt, a white police officer and that he panicked while he was being frisked and pulled out a cheap .22 caliber pistol tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket. Montgomery’s lawyers argued during his trial that their client had development disabilities and an I.Q. in the 70s that prevented him from fully understanding the consequences of his actions.

Although his initial death sentence was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1969 — partially as a result of the atmosphere of racial animus surrounding the first trial — upon retrial, Montgomery was automatically given the mandatory minimum for murder, despite his young age: life without parole.

For more than half a century, Montgomery, now 69, has been locked away in the state penitentiary system. On Tuesday, Montgomery received a last chance at freedom, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case turning on whether thousands of youth offenders like him can benefit from a prior Supreme Court ruling dealing with juvenile offenders.

In 2012 the justices ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts, without consideration of mitigating circumstances, like their developmental abilities, family life and chance of rehabilitation, were unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Although the decision did not outright do away with life sentences without parole for offenders under the age of 18, it insisted that they have the benefit of a sentencing hearing taking into account unique facts of their situation and the crime. 

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court took on the question of if that finding should be applied retroactively to the approximately 2,000 offenders who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were minors.

But the 75-minute high court argument also ended with a distinct possibility that the justices could dismiss the case on technical grounds, deciding they did not even have the authority to reverse the Louisiana Supreme Court's contention that the Miller rule did not have to be applied retroactively. 

"We weigh in when we have jurisdiction," said Justice Antonin Scalia, suggesting that the court had no business hearing Montgomery's case.

Montgomery’s lawyers argued that he deserved a chance at fair sentencing, even five decades after he first became an inmate.

“Fairness lies at the center of this particular case,” said Marsha Levick, the deputy director of the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center and a member of Montgomery’s legal team. “The situation in many states and in Louisiana is that whether or not you are relieved from a having to serve an unconstitutional sentence depends on an arbitrary date on a calendar.”

Levick also notes that behind bars, Montgomery has launched a mentoring and tutoring program to help other inmates with literacy, served as a boxing coach and worked the same job in a silkscreen printing shop for 18 years.

“He comes across a quiet, respectful person, after enduring five decades in what was once one of the most violent prisons in America,” she said. “He’s led a very stable life, as ordinary as it could be within prison confines.”  

Part of the justice’s rationale will depend on whether they decide the Miller ruling was a substantive change to the law — which tends to be applied retroactively — or a more minor procedural alteration.  Montgomery’s counsel argued the former; the state of Louisiana argued the latter.

“Because Miller held that a category of punishment (mandatory life without parole sentences) cannot be imposed on a category of defendants (juvenile offenders), Miller created a substantive rule that must apply retroactively to cases on collateral review,” Montgomery’s lawyers wrote in their petition. “It marks a foundational shift in our understanding of appropriate, proportionate and constitutional sentencing for juvenile homicide offenders.”

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University specializing in criminal sentencing, additionally argued in his own brief that the procedural-substantive distinction aside, the justices should also have an interest in how reopening the sentencing proceedings would result in fairer outcomes for many of those convicted as juveniles.

“There’s a growing awareness that if we sentence based only on the crime, without a sophisticated understanding of the criminal, we’re at the risk of being inaccurate or being inefficient and unjust in how we pick the sentences,” he said. “Allowing judges to consider all the facts of the offender and all the facts of the crime and all those things is likely to lead to a more accurate sentence.”

The case comes amid a growing re-examination of the criminal justice system in the United States, including for the youngest offenders. In recent years, the court in its decisions has incorporated the most recent developmental research on juveniles and acknowledged that they deserve different treatment from adults.  

“The idea that we were ever sending children to life without parole is barbaric,” said Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “They are different from adults, and they have a different sense of culpability and cause and effect. We need to give them the benefit of understanding the way they develop.”

Some, however, argue that reopening sentencing proceedings is unfair to the families of the victims of juvenile offenders. Bobbi Jamriska, whose teenage sister was killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend in 1993, said doing so would retraumatize victims’ family members and would often result in the same sentence.

“It seems very in vogue to make it seem like these killers are the victims, using soft language about the murders and making it seem like it wasn’t a big deal, which is very troubling,” said Jamriska, who will be watching the Supreme Court proceedings in Washington tomorrow. “I know the facts of these cases more than the casual observer. In most cases, this is an appropriate sentence. This is not a sentence that they randomly throw out at people.”

With the Associated Press

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